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As Fate Would Have It

Chapter Text

 (Gif is mine)

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1940, Somewhere in Germany

You sat in a dark room. The windows were boarded shut, the only pieces of furniture were two chairs, a lamp and an old wooden table riddled with watermarks from coffee cups and glasses. In front of you sat your handler, and long-time rival, Yelena Belova.

In the distance, you could hear the faint sound of water dripping from what was most probably a leaky faucet. The 'plop-plop' noises it made was driving you crazy but there was nothing you could do about it, clandestine meetings always took place in shady, run down places.

"Just once, can we have our mission briefs in a place you're not liable to contract tetanus?" You asked Yelena in your native tongue. A coy smile taking over your scarlet-stained lips. Yelena noticed the venom oozing from your words. She knew you hated her and that gave her much comfort. She knew how much it gnawed at you, the fact that she was chosen to be your handler even though you were the same age –and not too long ago, shared the same rank.

You and Yelena started from the same place: the bottom of the barrel, among the street rabble. You both didn't have a cent to your name or a family to call yours. You came from the same orphanage and once you considered each other sisters. But that all changed in the Red Room. Yelena had a vicious streak to her. Ambition and ruthlessness stole the old Yelena from you. The one who would call you 'sestra' instead of 'tovarishch'. The one who would help braid your hair and stand back to back with you when the other children would try to pick a fight with either of you.

Now all that was left of your relationship was resentment and the constant exchange of condescending smiles and venom soaked words. You were nothing but slow acting poison to each other now. A part of you would always resent that. The softer side of you, the side you hid beneath your deadly skills and dolled up face.

"Now, now tovarishch," Yelena chastised, drawing out the word 'tovarishch' in an almost sultry manner. She was toying with you. "Yours is not to question, yours is simply to report. Report and do as I say."

Her words sounded almost seductive. Despite Yelena's ruthlessness being the catapult she used to advance within the Black Widow Ops Project, you suspected she may have relied on her feminine wiles too. Yelena's speciality was seduction. Your particular skill set on the other hand was a little less glamorous and a little bloodier.

"Report." She ordered.

You begrudgingly relayed the intel you had gathered about your successful infiltration of the group of zealots known as Hydra. How they were brainwashed into thinking they could dominate the world with something as ridiculous as magic. How they were currently searching for remnants of the Old Norse gods throughout Europe, but most important of all was the assignment they had tasked you with.

"So they are sending you to the Americas to track down the whereabouts of this-" Yelena looked down at her thorough notes. Pen in one hand and cigarette in the other. Her blonde hair had been cut short, probably to keep up with the current fashion trend most non-Russian women wore. You'd never admit this, but she looked rather classy. You looked the complete opposite of class. Your dark locks were firmly tied in a headache-inducing plait and your garments definitely weren't up to the current standard of fashionable.

"Doctor Abraham Erskine, is that correct?" She finally finished her sentence after a few seconds spent skimming her notes.

"Da."

Yelena took a long drag of her cigarette and let out a cloud of smoke, "And what are your mission parameters?"

"To maintain my cover as a waitress who works at a cafe down the street from the building Hydra speculates Dr Erskine is using as his lab. Once confirmed I am to relay this information to a Hydra agent already on the ground and, if possible, attain his research on a project called: Project: Rebirth." Your voice was cold, detached. It almost sounded robotic as you relayed verbatim what your Hydra superior had told you.

"Is that all?" Yelena looked at you through the corner of her eye, it almost felt like she was sceptical of you. Being a double agent meant getting suspicion from every corner. Even from the people you grew up with, apparently. This didn't faze you though. You kept your composure and straightened your posture further if that was even humanly possible.

When you didn't answer, Yelena stood up from the battered chair which made a creaking noise, put out her cigarette a little too close to your fingers and let out a final puff of smoke.

"Is. That. All?" She leaned in close enough that you could smell her nauseatingly sweet perfume, "Tovarishch." She whispered at the end.

You looked her square in the eyes, both filled with fury, lips pressed together in a line, "No."

This got Yelena's attention, her eyes almost daring you to say something insubordinate. You were half tempted to say your next words with snark but chose to remain ever the serious soldier.

"Hydra is looking for Frost Giants in Norway." Your face was serious, "Maybe you should get some Little Spiders to look into that."

Little Spiders were what your trainers and fully fledged Widows called the recruits.

"I'll let command know." She clicked her tongue, her heels sounding heavy on the cold stone floor, "Before I forget, your alias, the one Hydra has appointed to you, what is it?"

Your eyebrows furrowed in annoyance as a sigh escaped your lips, "Helen. Helen Rushman."

Yelena laughed her playfully evil laugh as she walked out of the room, leaving you alone in the damp, poorly lit, ramshackle room. Her laugh still ringing in your ears long after the sound of her heels could no longer be heard.

"Bitch," You whispered.

 

1941. Hal's Diner. Brooklyn

 

"Order up!" Hal shouted from the kitchen as he hit the little bell a little too hard in his haste to start on the next meal.

"Coming," You replied in a sweet sing-song Americana accent as you jogged to the counter.

You took the plate of ham, eggs and toast to its respective order number. Your smile sweet and welcoming as you placed the plate down. The brawny man tipped his hat at you and gave you a toothy grin.

You should really lay off diner food, you secretly thought.

"Thank you, sweetheart."

You had to pinch yourself from rolling your eyes at him. Call me 'sweetheart' one more time.

"No problem, sugar." Your eyes squinted from the painful smile you'd had plastered to your face all day. The man took the money out of his wallet.

"Keep the change."

You deducted the 10 dollar bill from his check and realised he had over-tipped. You weren't going to fight him on it, he would have had to pay a substantially steeper price if he called you 'sweetheart' one more time. An eye probably.

You walked down to the staff area and took off your annoying heels. Having to work in a diner that looked like it had jumped out of a 14-year-old girls imagination was one thing; the light pink work dresses and candy coloured booths, but having to wear these godforsaken toe-amputating contraptions was another. Sally your fellow waitress, friend and roommate walked in as you sat down to take a breather.

"Hon, not to be all mother hen on you, but you look absolutely dreadful."

Sally was one of those girls who would make a great poster-child for those obnoxious real estate posters with her rosy cheeks, bright blue eyes, pinned up blonde hair and standing at an average 5'5. She looked like she stepped out of a poster you saw advertising some Real Estate agency featuring a doting mother, a handsome husband and their 2 kids -all smiles and oozing domesticity... Picket Fences, you think it was called. Her southern drawl was the only thing that didn't fit in as much in Brooklyn. You found it soothing. Her very presence was usually what kept you from slipping into your own out-of-place Russian accent whenever you got too comfortable. She was a reminder of how you didn't belong.

"This is my second shift. Annie called in sick. You ask me it's that good for nothin' boyfriend of hers, probably broke up with her for the hundredth time this month." You laughed, but Sally just swatted you on the shoulder and gave you this disapproving pout.

"Don't go bad mouthin' what you don't understand, honey." She took out her compact and handed it to you, "When you fall head over heels for some dashin' young man, let’s see you keep your wits about ya'."

You scoffed.

Always the romantic this one

"Here put some colour on your cheeks and liven up a little, can't expect to make a living off tips if you scare your customers away, now can ya'?"

You did as she said and went to the ladies room to freshen up, making a point to take off your heels while you fixed your makeup for a momentary reprieve from the toe-crushing pain.

***

"Why do you always pick fights with guys bigger than you?" Bucky whined, "I'm always the one that has to take on three guys at once when they knock you out. It's not fair. Just once I want to spend a day without my fists being all bruised and bloodied." He looked at Steve with both pride and worry.

"I couldn't do nothing while those no-good… goons harassed a lady." Steve answered in a wilfully strong way, in moments like these Bucky always saw Steve as this strong, towering giant of righteousness and not this boy burdened with a frail body and skinny limbs. Steve had a heart of gold and even though he didn't look it, he had a strength to him many underestimated. That was what Bucky admired most about his best-friend, his determination.

"How am I supposed to stay mad at you, when you sound all proud and righteous like that?" He gave his best friend a slap on the back making him wince slightly from a still-forming bruise. "How about we get something to eat, after all that swashbuckling I think we deserve it."

"Yeah," Steve sniffled as he whipped some blood off his nose. His clothes had a few stains from being throw into the ground more than once and his face was developing a small bruise from where his face came into contact with the pavement. He smiled.

"What are you smiling about, you're the one who got beat up?"

Steve pointed behind where three guys lay unconscious with much bloodier noses than Steve's. Bucky's handiwork.

"I still look better than those guys."

"Yeah, you're a regular Casanova alright." Bucky joked as he and Steve headed towards a place with a large illuminated sign that read: 'Hal's Diner'.

***

You heard the familiar chime of the bell above the door. Sally made a motion with her head to say someone had sat in one of your booths. You sighed as you looked at the clock on the wall. Two minutes till shift change. You tried to hide your irritation at having to take another order so close to shift change by plastering another one of those plastic smiles and that doe-eyed look people seemed to adore. When you finally looked up from your small notepad, however, you found yourself feeling flustered when your eyes locked instantly with the cool steely blues of the handsome stranger sat before you. A shiver ran up your spine and you had to clench your fist to keep from drowning in those beautiful oceanic blues.

You swore something fierce in your native tongue to yourself, a whisper, but noticeable. You weren't some lovesick puppy like Annie or a hopeless romantic like Sally, so why was your body behaving like one (or both) of those? Because a handsome stranger was looking at you with an intensity you had never been victim to before?

In an effort to relieve the invisible tension that hung heavy around you, you turned your gaze to the handsome man’s companion. He was small, in both stature and size, and even though he looked like a man who had had a hard life thrust upon him (and a little blood stain on his nose) he seemed to exude this air of… something. Whatever it was uplifted your spirits when he gave you a small, sweet and genuine smile. It had been a while since you had met someone who could genuinely smile, despite everything going on in the world.

Before you knew it you had reached into your apron and grabbed a small handkerchief and offered it to the man with the bloody nose.

"You have a little something on your nose," You pointed to your nose and then his, not wanting to say the word 'blood' for some reason.

"N-No I couldn't," he stammered, his cheeks flush.

Look at that, a genuine smile, modest and a little shy. Adorable.

You smiled at him, "Please, I insist." You batted your eyelashes, trying to look all fragile and innocent -he noticed. He took your handkerchief from your outstretched hand and gave you a nod in thanks. His handsome friend (whom you were still trying to avoid looking at) gave a slow, deep chuckle at his friend’s awkward interaction with you.

"Now, what can I get you, boys?"

"What do you recommend?" The handsome man asked, not shy about the fact he had not averted his eyes from you since you walked to their booth.

"Well, Hal's making his house special today. It comes with toast, eggs, ham and a side of tomatoes. And if you have a sweet tooth, I recommend the waffles. Hal adds this secret ingredient that makes the batter sweeter than normal. It's to die for." The words sounded almost like a recital. You'd done it many times before. For some reason, people always thought waitresses knew what was good on the menu. They never once considered that you'd never eaten the food from your place of employment. The irony.

"Oh, and we have a freshly baked peach cobbler if you're feeling fruity." You added.

"I'll have the cobbler," the adorably shy man said.

"And I'll have the house special, a coffee, black and your number… Helen," The dark-haired man said confidently as he craned his neck to read your name tag. His bluntness had caught you off guard. It wasn't unusual for men to flirt with you, especially given your pink get up that was your uniform, and yet somehow coming from him you felt a flush creep over your cheeks.

"You make a habit of flirting with waitresses you just met, Mr Tall, Dark and Handsome?"

His friend gave a little snicker, clearly enjoying that someone wasn't easily falling for his cocky one-liners.

"Only the beautiful ones. Call me Bucky, it's shorter -and that smug mess is Steve," He pointed his finger at his friend who was indeed sporting a smug look. I guess he wasn't used to watching his friend's lines fall on deaf ears. At least, that's how you hoped it appeared. Hell would freeze over before you ever admitted that your heart jumped when he called you beautiful. Boy, he was a sweet talker and he knew it.

You couldn't stop from letting out a soft giggle, "Is he like this with all the girls?" You asked Steve, his nose no longer bloody.

A coy look livened his eyes, "He's a regular Casanova." Bucky nudged Steve's leg beneath the table, clearly, his friend wasn't being the most cooperative wingman. Both you and Steve laughed at the 'come-on-man' look Bucky gave in silent response.

"I'll be right back with your orders." You took your leave. You swore you could hear Bucky say 'Thanks a lot man' at Steve. It wasn't until you relayed your orders to Hal and he pointed out the smile you had glued to your face that you realised that was the first genuine smile anyone other than Sally had brought out in you.

You had been so caught up in the moment that you completely forgot about the shift change until one of the new girls came to relieve you of your apron. You swore you could feel the inkling sensation of disappointment rear its head, but you simply shook it off and chalked it up to the fact you hadn't had much social interaction besides Sally and the diner regulars.

***

"Order up!" Hall shouted from behind the kitchen counter. You nearly let Sally pick up the order until you heard him say, "House special and a slice of cobbler!"

Even though your shift ended a few minutes ago and you were comfortably seated in the staff lounge with a hot cup of coffee in hand, you went ahead and collected the order. Sally looked at you from the corner of your eye while attending to another customer, her eyes sparkled with curiosity as she watched you walk to the booth where Bucky and Steve patiently waited.

"Do you want some more coffee?" You asked as you noticed Bucky's empty cup.

"Yeah, thanks," Bucky replied.

Before you could head to the coffee machine by the counter, you heard Sally say almost immediately, "I've got that, sugar." She quickened her step to an almost hop as she made her way to you, leaving a dumbfounded customer behind her. What was she up to?

"Well, since I never got an answer about that number, how about I take you dancing sometime, doll?"

For the first time in your life, you didn't know what to say. You had no witty remark or some smart excuse to deflect his question. You just stood there, mouth slightly agape. You imagined that you looked like a deer in headlights. No one had ever called you 'doll' before, at the very least not in such a husky voice.

Sally on the other hand nearly fell over from excitement. Her arm jolted causing her to pour a little too heavy-handed into the cup, causing it to overflow. Steve quickly grabbed his napkin and helped her clean the spill.

"Actually, I don't thi-"

"She'd love too. Here- let me write down our address," Sally interrupted. He used Bucky's napkin to jot down your shared address. "We get Friday's off." She handed Bucky the napkin.

"How will I know the beautiful Helen here won't stand me up?"

"Elle. Never Helen. She hates being called Helen, don't know why. It is just the prettiest name." Sally cooed.

"And how do I know you won't find someone else to keep you entertained?" You shot back with a smirk and a raised brow.

"I'll make sure he stays a true gentleman, Ma'am," Steve promised. “Least I could do to repay your kindness." He gestured to the handkerchief peeking out from his pocket.

"See, everything worked out. And I promise to make sure she's ready by 7." Sally gave you a pat on the back. Clearly proud of her handiwork. You had to repress a sigh for fear of coming off as rude.

Bucky's blue eyes met yours for the second time. They birthed the same reaction as before. For the briefest second, you felt the strangest sensation in your stomach. Was this what all those love-struck girls meant by 'butterflies'? It made you feel vulnerable.

"I look forward to Friday, Elle."

After what felt like the longest minute of your life, Sally spoke to break the silence, "Would you look at the time. Don't you have some errands to run?"

That was your cue to leave. Sally knew you well enough that if she left you to dawdle any longer you'd find a way to talk yourself out of your date. Your date with Bucky. The handsome, charming, blue-eyed Bucky.

"Till Friday." You said, "And Steve, I'll hold you to your promise."

Steve gave a curt nod in compliance. Bucky smiled and took a sip of his coffee.

"This coffee is delightful, did you make a fresh pot or-" Bucky began chatting up Sally who enjoyed every moment of the attention. Her laugh followed after you as you disappeared back into the staffroom to put on your red coat and change into flats.

As you clocked out and made your way home, Bucky never seemed to leave your thoughts. He was a complication just waiting to happen.

Chapter Text

(Gif not mine)

image

The week had dragged by at a snail's pace. Every time that small little bell chimed when a customer walked in you found your head snapping up in the hopes it would be Bucky. And every time it never was. You tried hard to fight your feelings of disappointment during those moments. Sally, the ever watchful mother hen, noticed the slight change in your behaviour throughout the week.

"He's really put a spell on you," Sally said during your break. It was a slow day today.

A spell huh? you pondered over Sally's words. Who knows, maybe he had put a spell on you. With those bewitching eyes and his hauntingly pleasant voice and kind smile, he may as well have. You thought it silly that one person, whom you barely knew for more than one afternoon, had such a hold on you. It frustrated you, but also intrigued you. No one had made you feel as vulnerable as he had. A part of you hungered to find out more about him, but the closed-off spy in you warned to stay away.

"I don't know what you're talking about," You said nonchalantly. Pretending not to know what Sally was talking about. You took a sip of your burnt diner coffee.

"Who put a spell on what now?" Annie chimed in from the locker room.

"You're never around for your actual shift, but you have no problem being within earshot to eavesdrop?" You whispered letting out a small huff in annoyance, twirling your pen skilfully in your free hand to distract yourself from thinking of Bucky any longer.

Sally firmly tut-tutted as she folded her arms. She looked like a mother scolding her child. Annie walked in a few seconds later all cheerful with a pep in her step, her short brown curls bouncing along, defying the physics of strong hold hairspray.

"Well?" She tapped her foot impatiently as she fidgeted with some pins in her hair.

"Elle here has a date with some dashin' young man. She hasn't been herself since he walked through that door." Sally swooned as she pointed to the entrance of the diner.

"Ugh! I'm so over men. I'm so over romance. Do yourself a favour and just steer clear from all that nonsense." Annie's smile faded and was replaced by a stern flat line, her eyes screamed murder. You and Sally looked at her in surprise as she put on her apron and left the staff room. Then it dawned on you both. You simply rolled your eyes while Sally trotted after Annie in concern.

"Aw honey, did you and Richie break up again?"

"Richie who?" Annie acted all ignorant as she kept her head high and smiled all innocent like.

You scoffed and looked up at the clock. Two more hours until your shift ended. Two more hours until you had to rush home and get all dolled up for your date with Bucky. Your heart raced with anticipation and you mentally scolded yourself for behaving more like Annie with each passing day.

***

"You're not wearing that are you?" You heard Sally behind you.

You looked in the mirror, not finding anything wrong with your outfit. You had decided to wear your favourite white blouse, a red and white spotted skirt, paired with a red scarf and a large high-waisted black belt. You looked quite fashionable, but not too extravagant to prevent attracting too much attraction. Sally had helped you set your hair in rollers so that you could wear your hair down in loose curls. Your lips were a subtle shade of pink. Red lipstick was never your thing, it reminded you of red stained cigarette buds and the person they belonged to.

"I think I look agreeable." You said defensively as you gave Sally a little twirl.

"Because that's what we all want. To turn a man speechless at the sight of agreeability," She teased. Sally clicked her tongue and disappeared into her room. When she re-emerged she was holding a pair of glossy red pumps. You sighed, they probably felt like they looked: expensive and uncomfortable.

"I was talkin' about those," Sally pointed at your trusty brown flats.

"We're supposed to be going dancing, not modelling footwear." You retorted in defence of your old trusty shoes. "Besides, didn't those cost like three months’ pay?"

Sally nodded and handed them to you. Not taking "No" for an answer.

"Plus tips!" You added, hoping that would change her mind. Sally simply extended her free hand.

"Come on, hand those monsters over."

You sat down on your bed, knowing this was one fight all those years spent training in the Red Room couldn't help you win. If Sally was a highly trained assassin with a knife or an armed soldier, you'd have no problem taking her on. Sadly, she was simply a stubborn, overly kind friend who only wanted the best for you. Those were harder to fight off, it pained you to think of the day you'd be pulled from your assignment and you'd one day simply disappear from her life, no explanations, nothing.

Begrudgingly, you took off your shoes and traded them in for the red pumps. She disappeared to place them on their usual spot on the shoe rack by the door when you heard a knock and your heart began beating like it went through a triathlon -its fast pace rushing blood to your ears making them feel hot. Feeling self-conscious, you fluffed your hair to hide your blushing ears.

"He's here!" Sally exclaimed excitedly as she approached the door. With two clicks and the sound of the door chain being pulled across the bar, the door unlocked and Sally waved your guest into your apartment, "Don't you clean up nice, please come in."

You heard Bucky give a low chuckle, "If you keep flattering me, I may just have to save you a dance." He flirted harmlessly and you could vividly picture Sally's face sporting a deep blush.

"Now, now. I'm a one man kinda woman," she sounded almost stern, "And so is Elle, so you best be the perfect picture of a gentleman tonight or I'll have your head," her fruity voice failed to carry the sinister tone she tried for.

You laughed to yourself at Sally's overprotectiveness.

"Oh, I don't doubt it, Ma'am. My buddy Steve would probably beat you to it."

"Call me Sally."

"Bucky."

"Is Steve that sweet boy from the diner? No offence, but I can't see him laying as much as a scratch on ya'."

Bucky chuckled again, "What he lacks in strength, he makes up for in stubbornness." His words carried admiration for his friend and you felt a bittersweet pang in your chest. He sounded so earnest and close with Steve, it was a friendship to envy. It also reminded you of the sisterhood you had shared with Yelena, which had all turned to ash and bitterness now. You prayed nothing so cruel would befall such kind-hearted men.

"Bless his heart. Bucky, that's a peculiar name. Is that short for somethin' or-"

"Shall we get going?" You walked into the room. The clasps on the shoes had given you more of a fight than you'd have liked but you intervened at just the right time to save Bucky from Sally's talkative nature.

Bucky stared at you like you were an oasis in a desert. He fumbled with the zip on his brown leather jacket, making him look adorable. You would find his reaction funny if yours wasn’t exactly the same. He was dressed in a crisp white dress-shirt, dusty trousers and well-polished shoes. His hair was combed back neatly and by some trickster’s magic, he looked even more handsome than you remembered.

Sally cleared her throat and nudged Bucky. Hinting for him to say something so the both of you would stop staring at one another.

"You look," he waved his hands around in search of the right words, "Beautiful."

"And so do you." Your words came out rushed and you had to bite your lip to keep from grinning at your cheesy line, you tucked your hair behind your ear. You cleared your throat and corrected yourself, "Handsome. I meant to say you look handsome."

Bucky chuckled his low husky chuckle and the sound of it felt pleasant to you.

The butterflies fluttered back to your stomach, suddenly making you feel anxious. This wasn't your first date, but for some reason, it felt like it. In fact, you distinctly remember being significantly less anxious on your first date. Maybe you were turning into Annie.

"Y'all best get goin' if you want to return at a reasonable hour," Sally shooed the two of you out of the apartment.

"You ready doll?" Bucky extended his arm. His blue eyes looked even brighter under the warm lighting of your apartment.

After a moment's hesitation, not sure if you should go through with it, you decided to take a leap of faith and took his arm. Bucky gave you a warm smile and nodded at Sally before leading you down the hallway towards the stairs.

***

You and Bucky had been walking for a few minutes. Bucky's stride was confident and sure but he somehow managed to maintain his pace with yours. He was close enough for you to take in his scent, he smelled of fresh linen and soap, simple but also a drastic change to everyone else’s overpowering scents. Your heart showed no signs of slowing down. You decided to make with some small talk to try and abate the effects of those damned butterflies.

"So, you never answered Sally's question."

"Hmm?"

"Your name, Bucky, is it short for something?" The cool evening's breeze soothing the burn in your cheeks.

"My first name is actually James. Bucky is short for my middle name."

"And what is your middle name?"

Bucky gave you a shit-eating grin, "I guess you just have to spend more time with me if you hope to find out." It was a cheesy line, one you'd roll your eyes at if it came from the regular flirty customers you were used to, but for some reason Bucky saying it had the opposite effect. For the life of you, you couldn't understand what type of hold he had on you. It was like Sally said, he had put a spell on you.

 

You laughed, "Awfully confident, aren't you?"

"Far from it. Believe it or not, but I haven't been able to get your smile out of my head." there was a sincerity to his words, it made you look up at him. He had a gentle smile on like he was reliving a fond memory, "I almost drove Steve up the wall. He practically counted down the days until our date just so that I could stop bothering him about how anxious I was about it. Silly huh?"

You didn't answer, his words made you draw a blank. Would he believe you if you said it had been the same for you? Hours spent worrying about your date or thinking about your chance encounter. The fact that if Annie hadn't have asked you to cover her shift, you never would have met Bucky and his adorable friend Steve. You chased those thoughts from your mind, they had an uncomfortably solemn taste.

"Where are you taking me for this date anyway?" You changed the subject.

Bucky's face lit up, "This quaint little joint not too far from your diner."

"You take all the girls there?"

"Only the special ones," he smirked, the charmer in him becoming more confident.

***

Bucky had been inquisitive the whole walk. He had asked questions about your childhood and where you were from, not wanting to lie to him like you did everyone else, you chose to give him half-truths.

You told him you had grown up in a foster home with other children like you which bonded you in a strange sense of comradery and that you were from a much colder place than Brooklyn -Bucky had guessed Fresno, you hadn't bothered to correct him and he took it as confirmation.

In turn, you had asked Bucky about his past and origins and he had answered every one of your questions honestly. You learned of his humble beginnings and his lifelong friendship with Steve and how he aspired to join the army someday and make a difference.

You grimaced at the thought of the two of you being on opposing sides and whether he'd think any less of you for doing what was expected of you by your country, same as he was. There it was, the first complication.

After you had walked past the diner, Bucky asked how you came to work there and why. You told him the truth this time, that you had impressed Hal and Sally by warding off a handsy customer and managed to squeeze a few extra pennies from the original tip he had intended to leave.

Sally had talked Hal's ear off and practically strong-armed him into hiring you, that and the fact Annie was so unpredictable with whether or not she'd show up on time to work. Since that incident, you and Sally had struck up an odd friendship and now you were sharing an apartment together. As for why you worked at a diner you gave the most run of the mill answer ever: you needed the cash and Hal was hiring.

"You're quite the fiery gal, aren't you?" Bucky said in response to your employment story. You thought you sensed a hint of amazement in his voice.

"Who me? I'm harmless, its Sally you should watch out for."

"It's okay if you are, you know. I find it endearing actually, don't try and hide it. It's what makes you... you."

Bucky had somehow managed to see through your disguise, past the smiling waitress and the years of training to perfect playing the roles you were given down to the woman who towed the line between spy and actress. This scared you. Very few people saw passed what you wanted them to, but Bucky had done so with such ease in just a few minutes worth of conversation. He was more attentive than you gave him credit for, you'd have to try twice as hard to keep from letting anything slip.

You looked into his eyes and felt the blue of them envelop you like a blanket to shield you from everything you would have to face and even though a part of you screamed to look away and avert your gaze, the bewitched part of you won over and lost itself in the warmth the blanket provided.

"Thank you," you said.

"For what?"

"I meet a lot of people in my line of work who say one thing and mean another. It's nice to meet someone who isn't afraid of being… “You had to think of the right word, "Straightforward."

"Customers at the diner can't be that bad," Bucky said lightly, completely unaware of which line of work you were referring to. You smiled a bittersweet smile. It was refreshing to be as honest as you were allowed with someone outside your sphere of influence, but it also felt unfair to Bucky to let him jump in with no reservations into your budding relationship while you only dipped your toes.

"Only the shameless flirts," you quipped at him, making Bucky show his teeth in a smug smile.

"It worked, didn't it?" He shot back quickly, eyeing you like a sly fox.

"We'll see about that."

***

When you had arrived at your destination, you had thought there must have been a mistake at first. The little dance club had been located smack dab in the middle of a residential area, its only discernible feature was a red door and a small hanging sign that had a music note etched on it. If you didn't know to look for it, it would be near impossible to spot.

Bucky rapped on the door in a specific sequence, after a minute a tall, brawny man wearing suspenders and a train conductors hat opened the door. He was undoubtedly a bouncer, upon eyeing Bucky he abruptly stood aside and gave a sharp nod. When you walked through the door you were surprised to discover it was actually an entrance to a basement, the sound of swing music rippled faintly from below.

When you reached the end of the steps you were welcomed by the sight of young men and women dancing to the sound of a live band. Skirts of all colours shimmied and swayed in a beautiful display of colour, the faint smell of perfume and sweat blended together to make a smell that was neither unappealing nor appealing. It smelled of youth. Lively, energetic youth and for the first time in a long time you felt like someone your age.

"It suits you," Bucky said, noticing your look of amazement.

You furrowed your brows at him, not catching his meaning. He laughed and leaned closer so he wouldn't have to shout, "Your smile."

You hadn't even noticed you had been smiling, "How did you ever find this place?"

"A friend of mine works the docks, he and a few others got together and rented this basement. They figured people were depressed as it is and needed a place to get away from everything, so they formed a little private club. This place isn't exactly licenced so they keep membership by word of mouth."

"Hence the secret knock and the concealed sign out front."

"Exactly," Bucky stretched out his hand to you and gestured towards the dance floor, "I believe someone agreed to a dance?"

You found his chivalry sweet, "I believe you're right." You took his hand and he led you to the dance floor. Dancing had been one of your skills you had to learn in the Red Room, but it was always the classics -all rigid and stiff, this dance was the complete opposite. "I must confess, I've never done this before," you admitted.

Bucky raised a brow, gave you a smile and twirled you around before he dipped your body all in swift fluid movements, "That's the best part about going dancing, trusting your dance partner enough to guide you." He raised you back up and you let out the first genuine laugh in a long time. Hints of your real accent bubbling through, but luckily you had enough sense to cut yourself off and Bucky had been too enamoured by your smile to notice.

"If you continue laughing like that you might make a guy think you're actually enjoying yourself." He teased.

"Shut up and lead, Mr Tall, Dark and Handsome."

"Absolutely, doll."

And with that, all reservations about Bucky had gone out the window. Because the moment he elicited that laugh of pure glee from your lips, was the moment you first felt that spark. A spark that would later transform into electricity and pull you to him like an invisible force field.

The night had flown by quicker than you would have liked and for the first time, you had eagerly soldiered through the pain of wearing uncomfortable pumps. When it got a little past 9pm Bucky had offered to walk you back home like the gentleman he was. When you were out of the basement you had taken your shoes off and walked barefoot, the cold feeling of the pavement cooled your feet, clasping Sally's shoes in one hand. Both of your bodies glistened in the moonlight from sweat making you feel eternally grateful when a gust of wind blew the heat away from your bodies.

Bucky had taken off his jacket and rolled up his sleeves to reveal modestly toned forearms. They were labourer’s arms, strong arms. You envisioned them wrapping around you like they had during one of your dance numbers, except this time they would anchor you to him as he kissed you as deeply and passionately as you knew he could.

The though awakened a yearning inside you and you tried to distract yourself from those thoughts by stepping on each adjacent brick on the cobbled sidewalk, missing the one in the centre each time. The silence of the night not at all uncomfortable between you two.

"I had a great time," you finally spoke when Bucky walked you to your apartment complex doorstep.

He regarded you with half-lidded eyes, his eyes skittering between your eyes and your full lips. He smiled for the umpteenth time today, "I'm glad."

His gaze was hypnotic, once again you found yourself drowning in it and it felt dangerously good. He took one step towards you and when he noticed your composure hadn't shifted he took one more.

His nose was barely touching yours and you felt his breath upon your skin, your eyes were still locked on his, but his eyes were staring intensely at your semi-parted lips. He licked his own giving them subtle gloss before he placed one hand on the small of your back and another placed right by your jaw, his thumb tracing your cheek. You quivered as a whimper escaped your lips and you pulled his head further down.

After what felt like an eternity spent exchanging hungry looks and hitched breaths, Bucky's lips finally met yours in a hot fervour and the spark from earlier transformed into pure electricity sending jolts originating from your kiss all the way to your exposed toes.

Bucky held you closer to him and you felt the muscles that hid beneath his shirt. The kiss was one of passion and heat and it made you feel drunk on his touch. He pulled away for a second to look into your eyes once more, his own filled with desire. It was like he was trying to commit this moment to memory, but soon you grew impatient and re-joined your lips to his in fiery vigour.

The second time it was you who broke away from the kiss. Bucky used his thumb to wipe off the smeared peach lipstick from his mouth, his nostrils flaring from being starved of oxygen.

Suddenly you remembered something, "Are you going to tell me what Bucky is short for now?"

"If I remember correctly, I said I would if you spent more time with me. I don't know about you, but to me, that translates to at least two or three more dates."

You let out a breathy laugh, "Persistent."

"I'll take that as a yes. Till next time, Elle." Bucky whispered his goodbye as he melted into the darkness of the poorly lit street ahead.

Chapter Text

(Gif is mine)

image

You couldn't stop yourself from smiling as you made your way into your apartment. The butterflies had persisted, flying around in your stomach causing weird tingly sensations in your hands and toes, but this time they left you feeling warm rather than vulnerable. When you got into your apartment you placed Sally's red shoes on the shoe rack and let out a breath. Your mind kept replaying all the moments that had happened with Bucky earlier, you felt a strange sensation well up in your chest. You hadn't felt like this in... well, ever.

You turned on the lights and headed to the fridge to grab a drink. You were painstakingly aware of the fact the apartment was empty. You had found yourself downcast at the fact Sally hadn't stayed up waiting to interrogate you about your date with Bucky.

You grabbed a coke from the fridge and slammed the top of the counter to pop the cap off. You would have preferred some tea but the tell-tale signs of exhaustion made you settle for the cold beverage. When you had emptied the glass of its contents you noticed a note stuck to the fridge door with a Coca-Cola magnet, undoubtedly left by Sally. It had been written in a rush and now you felt uneasy as you began to read the note:

Got a call from a hospital. My brother was in a construction accident back home. It didn't sound too serious but I took the 6pm bus back home. I borrowed some of your rainy-day money. Will pay you back when I get back.

Sally.

Worry seeped into your veins, you wanted to talk to Sally, ask her if everything was alright. You calculated the time it took to get to Alabama from Brooklyn and surmised Sally wouldn't be at her parent’s house yet, you also decided against calling her family's home at such a late hour. All you could do was find a way to distract yourself from overthinking things until you could call her tomorrow.

Feeling exhaustion rear its head, you made your way to your bedroom to try and get some shut eye -or at least attempt to get some shut-eye, your nerves were shot as it was and you felt wiry and on edge from reading the note.

You made your way to your bedroom and that's when you smelled it, cigarette smoke. You really weren't in the mood for this. You pinched the bridge of your nose and sighed, not bothering to switch on the light switch.

"What are you doing here? If my roommate hadn't been called away..." You addressed the shadowy silhouette seated by your bedroom window.

"Please, I'm no amateur comrade. I saw her leave earlier." The familiar Russian lilt making you feel somewhat homesick. "Poor thing looked absolutely devastated. Family emergency, was it?" The question was rhetorical.

"You're the one who called about Sally's brother," you said knowingly, having picked up on her not so subtle hints at her involvement. Your muscles tensed with anger at the thought Yelena had just put Sally through emotional hell just to get her to leave, "Did you hurt him?" Your tone was menacing.

Yelena gave a petty snigger, amused by your accusation, "His injuries, though very much real, were somewhat... over-exaggerated."

You sighed in relief, leaning into the doorframe for support.

"He is quite the dreamboat. Did the two of you have a good time?" A cloud of smoke filled your minimalist room. That is when it struck you that your bedroom window was in view of the building entrance. She had seen you and Bucky kiss. Worse yet, she had seen you smile to yourself in secret when he had walked away. If Yelena knew you were developing… something for Bucky she'd make it her life's mission to destroy it.

"Hydra keeps a close watch on their agents. You being here puts us both at risk, Yelena." You said strongly, ignoring her comment about your date with Bucky and trying to act as though her slightly threatening words, and subsequent spying of you, didn't bother you.

She laughed, the dark room hiding her facial expression from you, but you could almost see her venomous grin. You clenched your fists.

"We received some intel."

"And this couldn't wait to go through the usual secure channels because?"

"Because, comrade, the intel was about you." Yelena leaned out of the darkness, letting the moonlight illuminate her face. Her expression was serious, but her smile was sinister.

"I don't understand."

"Some believe you may have defected or that you have gotten soft living this indulgent lifestyle. They doubt your loyalties and your lack of valuable intel doesn't work in your favour."

You untied your scarf and tossed it on the bed trying to hide your indignation, "That's because Hydra hasn't activated me yet and If I make a move on the laboratory the US Army may get spooked and move Dr Erskine to a different, more covert location." Your logic was sound and there were no lies in your explanation.

Yelena shook her head, dissatisfied with your reasoning, "I didn't creep into your pitiful apartment and arrange to have your roommate sent away just so I could listen to your cheap excuses."

"Then why are you here?"

"To give you your new mission brief," Yelena put out her cigarette on the upholstered chair she sat in, keeping her eyes locked on yours, an act of dominance. "The good doctor is rumoured to have samples of a serum that apparently gave a high ranking member of Hydra extra-ordinary abilities."

"I know of this. The serum was imperfect, that is why I was sent here, to keep an eye on the doctor in case he ever perfected it," you informed her.

"Indeed, but given your predicament, some of your superiors thought that if you got your hands on one of these defected samples, it would prove you are still loyal to the cause, tovarisch."

You clenched your jaw, not taking kindly to being insulted and accused of treason in your own apartment, "Were you one of those superiors?"

"Perhaps," Yelena stretched off the chair, her heels allowed her to tower over you by several inches. She was trying to be imposing. "Do you accept your new mission?"

The air around the two of you was cold even though your window was shut. Infiltrating Dr Erskine’s lab would be next to impossible alone. The security would be tight and the sight itself heavily guarded, with minimal resources your odds weren't looking too good. To make matters worse, you had to ensure your infiltration went smooth enough that Hydra wouldn't notice one of their operatives made a move without their consent in order to keep her cover. If you refused, however, you'd practically be signing your own death sentence.

The silence was deafening. Eventually, after weighing all your options, you saw no choice but to accept the mission and pray you wouldn't get caught,

"Da," you answered finally.

Yelena looked you over, her brow heavy from contemplating something and then said, "You have three days. If your mission is successful we have arranged for a Hydra agent within our custody to take the fall. Your cover will remain intact. The package will be collected from your place of employment, less suspicious to do hand-off's in public."

You didn't say anything and Yelena took that as her cue to leave, this time her heels were practically inaudible against your apartment floors. A stark contrast to your last meeting.


First thing in the morning, you dialled the number to the diner and waited for Hal to pick up on his end.

"Hal's Diner, Hal speaking," the gruff voice of your employer answered.

"Hal, it's Elle. I'm going to need to cash in on some of my unused vacation days. It's a… family thing."

Hal exhaled over the line, he probably wanted to say no given as how Sally had most likely left notice with him this morning too. You made a mental note to call her when all this was done.

After a few seconds of silence except for Hal's contemplative breathing, he finally spoke, "Fine, but just promise you can be in by Monday. Annie is going to drive me up the wall if she has to work double shifts for both you and Sal next week too."

"Thanks, Hal." You cut the line.

You made your way to your little chest of drawers and pulled out an old briefcase. You unlocked the case with a four-digit code and grabbed its contents out of the case: a cypher; a copy of Leo Tolstoy’s, War and Peace; several maps of the city; building plans for a government building and a log book.

You place the items on the table and opened the first page of the book, in it was an inscription written in Cyrillic that read: To see where one's path shall lead them, one must first look back to the past and revisit the day that started them on their path.

The quote was a clue, it was addressing the day of your graduation from the Black Widow project. The memory of those harrowing events that transpired that day was still fresh in your mind; a doctor holding a sharpened scalpel, your body strapped down to a gurney, the anaesthetic making your muscles numb. Some nights these images haunted you, most of the time you tried to forget. Out of instinct, your hand went to grace the scarred flesh below your navel. It was a small scar, long since healed. The feel of it made cold shivers crawl up your spine and you had to take a moment to steady yourself. It was a reminder of the future you had chosen to give up, a life beyond the spy. This was perhaps the worst thing you had been asked to sacrifice in the Red Room.

You snatched your hand away from your scar and jotted down the day of your graduation on a notepad in front of you: 12th April 1938.

You broke the date into double digit numbers and opened the book on the twelfth page and started using the cypher from the fourth word, then you opened the book on the nineteenth page and used the cypher from the thirty-eighth word. When you were done the instructions directed you to go to a safety deposit box located in a train station.


Upon returning to your apartment it was nearly dark. The trip to the train station and back had taken much longer than you'd have liked, but now you were in possession of another briefcase. It was slightly larger than your own and much heftier too. You opened it with the code, which coincidentally was 1938. The briefcase lid popped open and revealed its contents to you: a tranquiliser gun, several flash grenades, an EMP device and a tactical stealth bodysuit equipped with a face guard to conceal half the face. It was time to get to work.

You grabbed a roll of scotch tape and tapped all the maps and building plans to the wall. You circled the target building you were to infiltrate and started mapping out all the possible entrances and exits surrounding the building. Then you took out the log book and marked the location and number of guards as well as their shift times -you had spent weeks staking out the building on your days off work. By the time you had finished materialising a plan, it was almost practically midnight. Even though your eyes burned from fatigue, you spent the next two hours committing the mission plan to memory before you disposed of the evidence. You burned everything except the book cypher and the book.

You slept uneasily that night. Your mind racing and muscles tense from the fighting you knew you'd have to do. The only thing that calmed you was thinking of Bucky's smile and how young and carefree he made you feel when you danced.


The next day had passed in a haze. You had made sure to call Sally first thing in the morning to find out if her brother was okay, he was. Sally practically burst out laughing in relief when she relayed the story of how he had simply sprained his wrist from a freak work accident. You were relieved as well. You didn't know what you would do if you found out the sweet and caring Sally had something bad happen to her brother because of you. The thought left a sour aftertaste.

When night fell you quickly got dressed into your stealth gear and holstered all your weapons on your utility belt. You concealed a knife inside one of your boots and rigged a signal scrambler out of an old radio and some various odds and ends lying about. As soon as the cover of night fell, you made your way to the target building where Dr Erskine supposedly kept a sample of the failed super soldier serum.


Infiltrating the compound held the least challenge. The military wanted to keep the presence of their secret lab based in a metropolis under wraps, so they had employed a private security company with a skeleton crew to patrol the outside. It was smart. To the outside world, it just looked like a pharmaceutical company had hired extra muscle to protect their interests, but you knew better. The hard part would be getting out of the compound once you stole the serum. Defective or not, it was still a thing of value.

Once you slipped passed the patrol, you made your way to the second story window by scaling the ledges of the building. You jimmied the window open with the knife you had concealed earlier and climbed through before the guards continued their patrol. From the second story, you made your way to an office bathroom where one of the electrical cables connected to the circuit breaker was located behind one of the bathroom stalls.

Manoeuvring around this unfamiliar office space wasn’t easy since you had to rely on the map you had memorised instead of one you could look at when uncertain. Once you dug out the cable from the weakly plastered wall you severed the cable covering the whole building in a shroud of darkness. You waited for the system to reboot and the backup generator to switch on. When it did you made your way to an office where a concealed elevator was installed. You opened the elevator panel and descended into the basement using the maintenance shaft.

When you reached the lower levels, you pried open the elevator doors and exited the elevator shaft. You snuck around, crouching low to keep from being seen. You activated your signal scrambler and hid it behind a row of cabinets lining a wall. The basement was dark and the torches of the military personnel on high alert worked to your advantage as their light gave away their position, making it easier to avoid them. You navigated the floor with caution, slipping from shadow to shadow, staying unseen and unheard. When you reached your destination you pulled out your lockpicks from your utility belt and made short work of the lock. However, as soon as the door swung open the alarm sounded off and red lights blinked on and off.

"Derr'mo!" You exclaimed in panic. You would have to speed up your timetable and throw caution to the wind. With the compound on alert, it was inevitable that you would come to blows with someone. You uncrouched and scurried about the room looking for anything of importance. You saw several files and dockets marked 'Classified'. You skimmed through some but they were all heavily redacted. You discarded the files and started looking through any place large enough to house a safe. A rather eye-sore of a painting caught your eye, it was enormous and bulky, perfect for covering a safe hole. You knew lifting the painting wouldn't be easy for someone of your stature. You took out your knife and cut through the canvas, ripping it from the frame.

The safe was a simple 4-digit rotary lock system. If you had more time you would have cracked the safe with finesse but due to the high alert, you decided against it. You pulled out a small tube and squeezed out a jelly-like substance in the shape of a circle. The metal started to sizzle as the chemicals ate away at the safe's integrity until a large circular chunk of the safe door fell to the ground. Bingo! There were four bright blue coloured vials, each labelled: Subject 01-J.Schmidt.

Schmidt, you knew that name. That was the name of the head of Hydra, the one rumoured to have suffered severe deformities from testing himself with the failed super soldier serum. It turns out the rumour was true.

You pulled out a long cylindrical tube from your belt hook and unscrewed the cap. You placed the sample into the tube and began retracing your steps out of the basement.

"Stop! Hold it right there!" A man shouted at you. His torch shining brightly behind you, casting your silhouette onto the wall. You raised your hands and turned in his direction slowly.

"You wouldn't happen to know where the bathroom is, would you?" The guard looked at you with a severely serious face, his hand hovering over his gun holster. You saw him inch towards it and in lightning quick reflexes you kicked his arm away and finished with a roundhouse kick to his jaw. He fell hard onto the floor, his body making a thud noise. He didn't unexpected you'd be able to take him down in such fluid, brutal movements.

"Who's there?" Shouted another guard approaching from a blind spot. You leaned against the wall out of his field of view, waiting for him to run past you. When he did you shot him in the back with the tranquiliser gun, the paralysing agent took its sweet time before it took effect. To speed things up you hit him with three consecutive blows to the chest and kicked him hard in the gut until he convulsed in pain and collapsed on the ground, his eyelids grew heavy from the drug as he slowly lost consciousness.

You continued down your original path until you got to the elevator. You were greeted by a group of guards all inspecting the open elevator doors, one spotted you and shouted to the others, alerting them of your presence. You took a deep breath and charged the four men. You used one of them to swing around and kick the other in the face before hurtling him over your shoulder and sweeping the third guard off his feet. You elbowed the fourth but not before he managed to get a good shot in with his heavy-fisted right hook. You staggered back in pain, white spots bombarding your vision in one eye. Now you were pissed. You stopped the second punch from making a landing and broke his arm at the joint. He cried out in pain. With all four guards groaning out in pain on the floor, you made your way up the shaft, only there was a problem. The elevator began to descend, blocking your exit.

You held back from swearing in case one of the guards you had wiped the floor with would hear you and catch onto your Russian dialect. You took a deep breath and tried to remember your secondary exit strategy, it wasn't a good one. You made your way down the corridor leading to the generator room, a mob of angry military personal running after you. You threw a flash grenade behind you to buy you some time. Once in the generator room, you unscrewed the grate covering the vent and crawled through the tight space. The vent led to a ventilation system connected to the outside of the building. From there you made a quick break for the dark alley ahead in an attempt to disappear with the darkness.


Back at your apartment, you had stripped yourself of your gear and put on something more comfortable. You nursed your eye with a cold towel (a bruise undoubtedly forming) as you sat back lazily on your upholstered chair with a cup of coffee in one hand. The cup covered the small singed circle Yelena had left behind. You stared at the cylindrical canister on the bed in contemplation. Tonight was a close call.

** **Vocabulary: Derr'mo - Shit (swear word) in Russian. ** **

Chapter Text

(Gif isn’t mine)

image


"I can't believe you tripped and fell on a doorknob," Sally admitted with a touch of bewilderment. Her brows were raised up to her hairline and her mouth stayed half way parted as she looked at you like some stray cat dancing on its hind legs.

You had woken up to Sally's melodic voice singing all her favourite songs from childhood. Her way of filling the air with music since you had dismantled the radio in order to construct a signal jammer last night (not that she knew that).

You gave a soft chuckle in response, the sheepish smile you wore on your face a deterrent to keep Sally from asking any further questions about the origins of your shiner.

"I swear if I even caught a whiff of foul play with that Bucky fella I'd've put the fear of God in him myself," she declared boldly while she slaved over the stove making pancakes -her way of apologising for nicking your rainy day money and disappearing for three days. If anything, you felt like you should be the one apologising. It ate you up how much you couldn't afford to talk to Sally and have a truthful conversation for once, she deserved better.

"What can I say, it was dark and late and I misplaced my footing and the next thing I know- Wham! I'm making eye contact with the doorknob," you jested poorly. Sally snorted. At least someone found your dry humour amusing.

"Well, regardless, take the day off. Can't be walking around with a black eye that fresh and expectin' to get good tips," Sally waved the spatula at your eye.

You played with the rim of your coffee cup, "I can't do that. I promised Hal--"

"Oh, pish!" Sally waved the spatula around like you were about to say something nonsensical. "You leave old Hal to me. He's all bark anyway. He knows better than to mess with me. We Texan girls know how to put the fear of God in a man, if need be. Just ask his mother."

Your eyes widened with curiosity, "You know Hal's mother?"

"Course I do, hon! Why, we used to go to the same church 'ery Sunday. His Momma told me before I came to Brooklyn: 'Now, Sally, you best keep an eye on my boy when you go work for him in the city. Can't be letting 'em city girls walk all over his kind heart.'" Sally revealed, her accent somehow getting even deeper when she reiterated to you what Hal's mother had said.

Everything began to make sense now, "Ah, so that's why Hal is so afraid of you. You're in cahoots with his mother." You wiggled your eyebrows.

Sally gave you a cheeky wink before serving up a plate of pancakes and sliding it to you, "Now, eat. I'm gonna get ready for work and you are going to nurse that eye. Hal won't be givin' you no problems," she said with some authority in her voice.

You didn't even bother arguing with her, you just stuffed your obviously tired face with her deliciously fattening pancakes. Satisfied, Sally disappeared into the bedroom to change. An hour later, you were left alone, yet again, with your loud thoughts in the empty apartment.

***

You were nuzzled comfortably into a ball on your couch when you heard a knock on your door. Not thinking much of it, and still groggy from your nap, you dragged your feet to the door and opened it wide, not bothering to look through the peephole. As soon as you did it though, you regretted not being more cautious. Bucky stood by the door, his smile quickly fading into a grim line, his unburdened brow now furrowed. On instinct, his hands rushed quickly to your face.

"What happened? Did someone do this to you?" There was an edge to his voice, it made him seem darker, more serious.

You brought your own fingers to grace his cupping your cheeks, something about how quick he came to your aid and the way he held you, with such a gentle touch, despite seeing the hardened look in his eyes made you smile. The fatigue in your body lifting like sunlight chasing grey clouds away.

"Bucky, I'm fine. I promise. Blame my clumsy feet and the doorknob over there-" you pointed at your bedroom door. He didn't seem to be eased one bit by your explanation, his thumb tracing the border between clear and purple flesh. Your eye winced in anticipation of feeling the tender soreness of his thumb coming into contact with the bruised flesh but it never did. He held you like you were some ancient relic that threatened to crumble at the slightest provocation. A tear began to form in that same eye, much to your chagrin.

"You'd tell me, wouldn't you? If- If someone did something, if something happened, right?" His eyes glued to yours, you felt trapped in his gaze. There it was again, that feeling of vulnerability. Unable to take the intensity of his piercing gaze anymore you forced a laugh to lighten the mood.

"I promise, it was just a clumsy accident. Do you really think Sally would let this rest if it was anything else?" You pointed at your purple eye. Bucky's expression softened, taking some comfort at your mention of Sally not being nearly as worried as he was right now. He let out a sigh, his hands dropping from your face. They trembled slightly, but he balled them into fists to try and hide it. That was when you realised he really cared about you. Any doubts you had about Bucky's intentions towards you were brought to an abrupt end with that small gesture.

"You've got a point," Bucky said as he ran his hand roughly through his dark hair, throwing an eye creasing smile your way.

"What are you doing here anyway?" You asked, "What time is it?"

"It's a little past twelve, had a lunch break. Thought I'd come see you. I stopped by the diner first, Sally told me you were taking a sick day. I was worried and you lived close by so I figured I'd check up on you and maybe ask you out for a bite to eat," He said confidently, no embarrassment or pauses of uncertainty in his words.

You felt heat travel up your spine and pool around your neck, a blush slowly forming. When Bucky noticed the rose colour of your cheeks he smiled even wider and you cleared your throat, "Well, Mr Tall, Dark and Handsome, as you can see I'm doing just fine. Except for suffering from two left feet, that is."

"Yes, I can see that, but you didn't say anything about not being hungry," he said humorously. Sneaky of him to find a loophole. You chuckled at his playfulness.

"How rude of me. Mr Barnes, would you like to join me for lunch?" You asked wryly, hooking an eyebrow up.

"On one condition."

"What is that?"

"I'm buying."

***

Bucky had waited for you in your kitchen while you got ready. You borrowed one of Sally's green dresses and matched it with your comfortable brown flats and a stylish hat to break the suns effects from your complexion.

You took a little longer than usual to get ready since you had to spend a good ten minutes trying to dial down the deep purple of your black-eye. When you re-emerged, Bucky was splayed out on your couch looking all too comfortable, like he belonged there.

He turned to you and stood, the way he looked at you made you feel like the most beautiful woman in the world. You almost believed the unspoken words his eyes conveyed to you. There was passion in them, desire and happiness. You fought hard against the yearning feeling inside you that screamed to comply and deliver to him the same look he was giving you, but even your iron-clad will couldn't prevent a sliver of the sincere emotions you felt for Bucky from slipping through the cracks.

"You ready, doll?" Bucky broke the comfortable silence.

"As I'll ever be," you replied. "Where are you whisking me away to?"

"It's a surprise." He offered his hand to you and you took it on instinct. He laced your hands together and placed a kiss on your hand. His young stubble tickled your skin in a pleasant sensation. You hummed wistfully at the contact. Hearing you reaction, Bucky caressed the boundary between bruised and not bruised flesh of your blackened eye again. It seemed almost as though he was trying to chase the mark away. You may not have said it out loud, but you appreciated his empathy.

***

The sounds of cheerful exclamations and thrill induced screams filled the air around you. The delicious smell of hot dogs and popcorn and cotton candy danced about in the air effortlessly, making your stomach rumble. The sight of various attractions caught your attention. Hundreds of signs hung high, advertising various attractions: the Cyclone, the Thunderbolt Roller Coaster, Feltman's Restaurant, the Toboggan Slide. Closer to ground level was an endless row of carnival game stands of all kinds.

A gleeful smile took over your face as you stared onwards from the train platform in wonder, "Coney Island? That was your surprise?" It may have been a question, but it wasn't at all one of disappointment or disillusionment. You were positively giddy.

"Welcome to Nickel Empire, heaven at the end of a train ride!" Bucky said with a proud smirk.

"Nickel Empire?" You asked unfamiliar with the theme parks nickname. Bucky laughed, finding your ignorance on the matter adorable. He slinked his arm around you comfortably. You fit perfectly, tucked under his arm, now it was your turn to feel like you belonged. You leaned into his weight as he walked you around the large, crowded amusement park.

"It's a nickname. You can come here with barely a handful of nickels and still manage to get on a number of rides and enjoy one of the world’s best hotdogs too! That is why it's called the Nickle Empire," Bucky enlightened you.

"Ah," you said, "Big spender I see," You teased.

Bucky drew you in closer and whispered above your temple: "Only with you around, doll.

It had been a wonderful day of festivities and games. Bucky had made it his sole mission to win you the largest stuffed animal at one of the knockdown booths. His aim and skill were almost frightening, his precision razor sharp and he wasn't even military trained. You couldn't help but muse about how proficient he would be if he actually was trained. Despite his great aim, he had missed a perfect streak by a hairsbreadth, failing to break the record. He had been quite disheartened, but you reassured him by giving him a kiss on the cheek and accepting the medium sized stuffed bear. To your utter surprise, he had practically turned into a blushing schoolboy at your public show of affection. Then an idea crept at the back of your mind and you needed to find a way to get Bucky away from the booth for a few minutes.

"Hey, how about you get us some cotton candy while I embarrass myself trying to beat your high score?" You asked sweetly.

Bucky gave you an obliging smile, "I'll be right back."

When Bucky was out of earshot, you turned to the booth operator with a look that could put the fear of God in anyone. He gulped, fear visible in the way he held himself. You pulled out a five dollar note and slammed it on the booth.

"Okay, this is what's going to happen. I'm going to knock down every one of those targets and beat that silly high score and when my date comes back you're going to tell him you didn't tally up the score properly and say that he actually did beat the high score. Got it?"

The booth operator gulped a second time and nodded, a look of scepticism in his eye. With little effort at all, you managed to knock down all the targets, including those in the bonus round (that apparently no one managed to get) and the booth operator looked at you like you were an abominable snowman everyone thought didn't exist. You gave him a wink and a cheeky smile in response. He wrote up the high score (minus the bonus round points) and officially named Bucky the new high score to beat. When Bucky returned his face looked up at the score chart completely flabbergasted.

"How did my score change?" He asked the both of you. You gave the booth operator a sideways glance and he knew what it meant.

"Ugh, see… I' I didn't tally up the points correctly. Turns out you actually did BEAT the high score." He answered.

A big goofy grin appeared on Bucky's handsome face, "Today must be my lucky day!" 

You eagerly took the cotton candy from his hand and nibbled on the sugary blue cloud, "Must be," you said innocently.

The rest of the day shot by faster than a shooting star. You and Bucky wondered from one attraction to the next, enjoying as many sights as you could while revelling in each other’s company. It was magical. For the first time in a long time, your attention never wondered to the darker parts of your mind. You never thought about Yelena or your double life or all the loneliness that came with it. Today, you were simply a woman on a date with a man. A man who looked at you with such warmth that you almost believed that you were the caring, innocent girl he saw you as.

While trying your luck at another booth, you noticed a couple walk past you, their expressions hard, it was such a juxtaposition to the cheers and bright smiles around you. The woman seemed upset by something and in passing you heard the man try and whisper: "We *have* to leave early, I have an early start to work tomorrow and the bus takes a few hours to get back. You know I can't afford to be late again this month."

You huffed, amused at the stressed man's menial worries. It must be nice, you thought, to not have much to worry about except the daily grind. A part of that stressful life must be liberating. At the very least, it was his own choice at the end of the day. Which was more than you could say about your own responsibilities and choices.

In your ruminations, you had reminded yourself of the fact you were expected to deliver the serum today. You were less than pleased at the prospect of ruining this perfect day because of your duties. Bucky noticed your change in attitude and squeezed your arm gently, it was his way of letting you know he was there for you -with you.

"You alright, Elle?" You smiled at the fact he remembered you hated to be called Helen. A part of you wanted to hear his voice speak your real name with the same level of affection he used now. It would always sting a little, the knowledge that Bucky would never call you by your real name.

"Yeah, I just… I remembered I have something important to see to today. I don't want to cut this day short. To be honest, I'm having a wonderful time. Here, with you."

Bucky cupped your face and inched himself closer until your foreheads were a barely touching, "I was having a wonderful time too."

You looked into each other’s eyes, the world around you slowly dissolving away and just when you thought he was about to kiss you again he averted his gaze and looked around, his mind forming the beginnings of an idea. His eyes caught a glimpse of something behind you and when he looked down at you again he was wearing that dastardly charming smirk of his.

"What?" You asked.

"I know I can't force you to stay a little longer, but I can ask for something in return."

"And what is that?"

"One ride. I can choose one last ride for us to go on and then we leave."

You thought on his offer for a moment and decided one more ride wouldn't kill anyone, "Lead on."

Bucky marched you over to the Ferris wheel in quick strides, you had to jog-run to keep up. He seemed really excited about it too. When you stood in line Bucky excused himself for a moment and went to talk to a man wearing a cap and overalls at the foot of the Ferris wheel. After a few minutes of a conversation you couldn't hear, Bucky trotted right back to stand in line with you, his smirk had evolved into a shit-eating grin.

"What are you planning, James Barnes?"

"Oh, you'll just have to wait and see, doll."

When the time finally rolled around for the two of you to take your seats on the large Ferris wheel, Bucky gave the man in overalls a signalling look that had you itching with curiosity. Nevertheless, you decided to just let things play out and wait to discover for yourself what he had planned.

"The view from up here is beautiful," you remarked.

"Yes, yes it is," Bucky agreed with you. You had no idea he had been looking at you when he said that.

The two of you were so close in proximity your thighs brushed against each other every time your seat would sway from the cranking of the wheel. When you reached the peak of the Ferris wheel it suddenly stopped turning. You looked down in shock and heard the same man Bucky conversed with earlier shout to the other patrons in line: "No need to panic, this happens all the time, just need a few minutes to get her started again!" The crowd groaned collectively.

You turned to Bucky and laughed, "How much did you pay him?"

"Five bucks. It was worth every penny," Bucky admitted. Then Bucky leaned in, the smell of him awoke every cell in your body in an exhilarating current. Your lips trembled slightly from anticipation. He brought his hands back to your face, the pads of his thumbs stroking your hot, flush cheeks. Your own hands travelled up from his strong arms to his shoulders and finally locking around the nape of his neck. You stroked the hairs on his nape.

"Elle," he whispered low and deep, prolonging each letter as if it were a prayer.

You closed your eyes, a tear forming in the apex of your eye. Whether those were tears of joy brought on by the genuine feeling of happiness Bucky had planted inside your dormant heart or because of the bittersweet fact he would never whisper your name with such passion and need, you would never know.

"Bucky," you whispered back.

You weren't going to fight what was about to happen, you didn't have the resolve to. You bridged the gap between the two of you and plunged the two of you into a heart-stopping kiss. Bucky breathed in your scent as your lips came into contact and you let out a moan of contentment. Everything was perfect.

At the base of the Ferris wheel, you heard the rumblings of a crowd begin to cheer and whistle at the two of you. That was no doubt the man in the overalls doing. You giggled into the kiss, Bucky's throat let out a rumble of its own. Then, unannounced, a firework went off in the distance, bathing your skin in its artificial rainbow colours and spooking the both of you out of the kiss.

"Did you?" You looked at Bucky in amazement.

He held up his hands, "I swear, that wasn't me. That was probably fate."

You rolled your eyes playfully and snorted, giving his chest a whack, "God! You're so full of yourself, you know that?" you teased him. Bucky just shrugged and laid further back into the seat, cradling his head with his laced fingers in a laid-back pose.

"Some would say that's my finest quality," he winked at you.

You leaned your head onto his shoulder and Bucky took that as an open invitation to wrap his arms around you. The two of you sat in silence, taking in the view from the top of the Ferris wheel, watching the bright, colourful sparks of the fireworks display going on in the distance. He felt so strong beneath you, his heart hammering against his chest fiercely. The thrumming noises it made calmed you. You couldn't remember the last time you felt this way.

Up here, at the top of the world, surrounded by magnificent lights, tucked in the warmth of the man you adored, you felt safe.

"By the way," you said, "Are you ever going to tell me what your middle name is?"

Bucky bit his bottom lip, "Eventually..."

Chapter Text

(Gif isn’t mine -also why are there so few 1940s Bucky Gifs floating about?)

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After your spontaneous date at Coney Island, Bucky had walked you back to your apartment and kissed you goodbye, promising to take you out again soon. You waited on your step as you watched him disappear behind a corner down the alley, the golden sunset creating a scenic image before you as Bucky made his graceful exit, then you raced up the stairs to grab the serum canister you stashed away in an old coffee tin.

You placed it in a small inconspicuous looking purse. You also grabbed a piece of Tupperware with sandwiches in it to give to Sally as an excuse for heading to work. You rid your face of most of the makeup except for the foundation covering your black eye and changed into boring clothes and your vibrant red coat before heading out.

By the back entrance of the diner you pulled out a brown paper bag from your purse and tossed it in the middle bin, an invisible weight lifting with that simple action, you felt your muscles unclench.

"What are you doin' here, hun?" Sally whispered from one of the booths she was clearing while you hid in the blind spot of the staff lounge.

"Bringing you a snack," You held up the lunch box with sandwiches in it. Sally's face lit up like a Christmas tree.

"Hal!" Sally shouted from the booth, "I'm takin' a break."

"But you just had one!" Hal disapproved.

"It's a slow day, something tells me you'll manage without me for a few minutes. Besides, you got Annie too!" Sally pointed to the red-haired waitress reading through a magazine behind the counters, twirling one curl absentmindedly as she hummed some tune.

In the kitchen you could hear Hal grumbling under his breath, he swore at the prospect of Annie being the only waitress on the floor. You snickered, taking delight in watching Sally trample all over the gruff and tuff looking Hal, their dynamic was always entertaining to watch, but no matter how much shouting or grumbling or huffing was exchanged, it was never filled with animosity.

Sally trotted towards you with the energy of a child about to secretly unwrap her Christmas presents the night before. A large toothy smile directed at you. While she made her way over, you shed off your coat and hung it by the coat rack next to the back entrance in full view of the row of buildings across the street. A signal.

"So, what happened?" Sally asked you as she took a bite out of the sandwich. You looked at her, unaware as to what she was on about.

"Don't look at me like that. Somethin's different, you aren't as despondent as you were when I left. And you're wearin' makeup. Did a good job too, if I might add. Somethin' must have happened!" She explained.

On most days Sally's head was firmly stuck in the clouds, blissfully unaware of the things around her, on other days, days like today, her attention to detail and ability to read your emotions never ceased to amaze. You let out a wistful sigh and tried to hide your young smile behind your coffee cup. "Well? Spill, young lady."

"Bucky came by," You said with a blush, Sally gasped in excitement, "We went to Coney Island."

Sally swooned, "My matchmakin' skills are legendary. To think, if you had still been all stubborn and bull-headed, you'd have never given that dreamboat the time of day. And now look at ya', you're turning red at the mere mention of his name."

Sally was undoubtedly proud of herself, she should be, this was all possible because of her refusing to take no for an answer when it came to giving Bucky a chance. You would never admit it, but you owed her so much more than she could imagine. She was the reason you had been reminded of what being safe felt like.

"Yeah, you should probably turn that matchmaking skill into a service. Earn some money out of it. God knows we could use a boost in our income. Can't live off tips forever," you jabbed.

Sally let out an adorable snort. The two of you exchanged details about your days apart and every time you brought up Bucky, Sally would lean in close and stare on with wide eyes. She hung onto every word like how a Victorian woman mooned over poetry readings.

About an hour into Sally's impromptu break, a strange man wearing a tan trench coat and fedora walked into the diner. Annie was a bit reluctant to serve him, he gave off this dark energy. Not discreet at all. After a moment had passed Hal noticed Annie hadn't moved from behind the counters.

"Annie, customer," Hal grumbled with authority. Annie simply turned to him wide-eyed and shook her head.

You sighed and used this opportunity to save Annie from diving into an uncomfortable situation. You motioned to Sally to lend you her apron and shouted from the break room: "I got it, Hal!"

Hal eyed you with surprise, previously unaware of your presence in the diner. He was about to say something but Sally just stood up from her chair and walked into the kitchen with arms folded over her chest. She tsk'd at him before he got the chance. Hal begrudgingly returned to work scrapping grease off the grill.

You walked over to the strange man in the trench coat and asked him in your sweetest voice: "What can I get for you, sir?"

"You're late. The package swap was scheduled for an hour ago," the man whispered through gritted teeth, his eye-line never leaving the plastic laminated menu in his hands. He used one finger to tap on his watch as though he was awakening it from slumber, you noticed the Cyrillic letters of the brand name and gave him a knowing glance. Then he said more loudly for all to hear, "I'll have a coffee and the Double Stacked Waffles, please." His accent was slightly lilted, but any without an ear for linguistics could hardly pick it up. You were happy to be doing this in a regular-Joe diner.

"I was held up. Is my cover still intact?" You said in a hushed voice before covering it up with a much louder, "Coming right up!"

The man didn't answer, he simply nodded his head slightly, "The package?"

"The middle bin behind the diner. Brown paper bag," you informed him quickly as you made your way to Hal and deposited the order. You turned to Annie and informed her that the hard part was over, you determined the man wasn't that scary despite his appearance and told her to deliver his order promptly and with a big smile. She whined but ultimately conceded.

You left to re-join Sally in the break room and continued making idle chit-chat, careful not to bring up Bucky or show much emotion for fear the man in the trench coat might pick up on something you didn't want him to.

After he promptly ate the food and drank the coffee, he left the money on the table and walked out without ever meeting anyone's eye-line. A few minutes later you heard some ruffling in the trash cans, Sally was concerned it may be a starving kid so you took the sandwich she had intended to hand to the hypothetical kid and went in her stead.

As you peaked out you saw the same man from before only without a trench coat, he was dressed in overalls. You eyed him up and down and he did the same. The tension in the air was thick. Eventually, he backed down and tipped his hat at you before walking off with the brown paper bag. When you returned to your seat in the break room you informed Sally it was just some street cat.

 

ONE MONTH LATER

 

"Here's your order," you said sweetly to the table you were serving when the bell above the diner entrance chimed. You looked up from the table and looked over at Sally who had a deep blush on her cheeks, she wiggled her eyebrows indiscreetly at you and you knew instantly who had walked in. You had to sigh to keep from letting out a breathy laugh. Sally was all too giddy about you and Bucky's blossoming relationship.

You turned in the direction of the door and saw Bucky shoot one of his heart-stopping smirks your way. Steve followed close behind and gave a shy smile and an awkward wave as the dynamic duo went to plop themselves down in their regular booth. As soon as you finished up with your other orders you quickly made your way the two men who never failed to lift your spirits and brighten your day. God help you! You were hopelessly addicted to their warm aura now.

"Hello, Steve," you gave him a wink and he repeated the same act he had done when he had walked into the diner: shy smile, awkward wave.

You turned to Bucky, his smirk still glued onto his face, there was a slight 5 O'clock shadow forming from all the busy days he'd racked up training down by the boxing gym, too busy to shave but not too busy so as to not be able to visit you. The thought was sweet and it made your heart flutter. On the other hand, the same couldn't be said about Steve, he was cleanly shaven like a babe. Some days you wondered if he chose not to grow a beard or if he simply couldn't grow one at all.

You looked at Bucky with an arched brow and your lips were coiled in a weird thinking pout. After a fleeting moment passed you said: "Hello… Bartlet?" The uncertainty in your tone easy to pick up on. Bucky let out a laugh and Steve just shook his head, it pained him to see you fail to guess the right name. You huffed loudly and snapped your fingers.

"Damn. Am I getting close or?" You looked at Steve for some hint, he looked at Bucky -who was giving him a warning shot- before turning to you and shrugging.

"Pay up," Bucky said with a proud undertone. You rolled your eyes and complied, placing a kiss upon his cheek for all to see, your cheeks turning to rose in the process.

"What is goin' on here?" Sally asked with much interest. She used her notepad to smack your arm.

"They play this game every time they meet. If Elle can guess what the full version of Bucky is, she wins. Every time she loses, however, she has to give Bucky a kiss on the cheek. No matter where they are," Steve explained. "It may sound cute, but after the first ten failed attempts, it just started getting annoying. I mean last time she kissed him in full view of the work crew down by the docks, and those guys can get quite rowdy."

Sally snorted before giving you a look of consolation, "Hun, it's near impossible to guess what Bucky is short for. Why, my cousin Bill, he was given the nickname Bucky too. And Bill is already short for William. And William ain't soundin' nothin' like Bucky to me. You're gonna be at this for a while. What do you get in return?"

"What do you mean?" You asked Sally.

"You know. If you guess it right, what does he have to give you in return?" Sally clarified.

Suddenly, your eyes lit up like luminous gems and a wicked grin of your own made itself known, "Anything," you said.

Bucky raised his finger, "Anything within reason," he corrected.

You blinked slowly and motioned to smack his arm playfully (a habit you had recently picked up from Sally) but he deftly caught your hand and placed a coy kiss upon your knuckles, caressing your palm with his calloused fingers.

Sally cleared her throat and as if on cue, Hal shouted "Order up!" from the kitchen. You turned quickly to place the regular order for the boys, they had been by so often you knew it by heart. Hal gave you a look that told you to turn down all extremely public displays of affection. You tried to hide your blush behind your curls by ducking your head a little lower as you walked to place the order on its respective table.

***

"I gotta say, Buchanan, you have a way with our darling Elle. I've never seen her so happy before. Not once," Sally admitted.

Bucky turned his head in surprise, so did Steve, neither of them expected her to know his actual middle name, let alone say it so bluntly and out of earshot of Elle.

"How did you?" Bucky was too flabbergasted to finish his question, Sally just giggled, her fruity voice filling the diner and making it seem a little brighter despite the grey forecast overhead.

"I do have a cousin named Bill, but his nickname ain't Bucky. He serves too, told him to do a little background check on ya'. I know everythin' I need to know about you, James Buchanan Barnes. I told you, if you hurt her, I'd put the fear of God in ya'. I wasn't jokin' around neither." Sally beamed an innocent smile despite the hard edge in her eyes, she had never looked so fierce.

Bucky gulped and Steve sunk further into his seat, refusing to meet her eye line.

Steve excused himself to go to the men's room, finding this exchange a little too awkward and out of place for him. Bucky snickered at his best pal as he retreated away, leaving him to fend for himself against this scary petite woman.

"I- I don't know what to say, Sally, except that, you're a good friend," Bucky said with a shaky voice.

"You damn right I am. That girl has been through somethin', I don't know what, she doesn't talk much about her past, but you best believe imma gonna do everythin' in my power to protect her from getting her heart broke. You hear?"

"Yes Ma'am," Bucky saluted. Sally returned to her sunny disposition and carried on with her duties.

A few minutes had passed and Elle had returned with Bucky and Steve's orders. As she placed the plates on the table Bucky found it increasingly harder to take his eyes off her. Steve cleared his throat and kicked Bucky’s shin from under the table to alert him he had been staring too long.

"We still on for Friday?" Elle asked. Suddenly Bucky's heart started racing out of the blue.

"Ye-Yeah, why?"

"Well, I was thinking this time I could take you out and show you one of my favourite spots. Steve is invited, of course, I know Sally would just love to tag along no matter my say in the manner when I tell her where I'm planning to take you."

"Sure, do we need to have anything prepared for this mystery trip?" Bucky asked.

"Just bus fare money and a picnic blanket. The rest you can leave up to Sally and me."

"Friday it is then," Bucky answered without skipping a beat.

"Friday," Steve affirmed as he took a sip of his milk, a white moustache forming between his nose and lip, causing both Bucky and Elle to coo with laughter at their adorable friend. Steve blushed and Elle offered him another handkerchief, which made a total of two now. Bucky would have to make a mental note to buy her one to say thanks later.

"Friday," Elle stated before disappearing to one of the newly vacated booths in the back. Bucky's eyes staying with her the whole time.

Chapter Text

(Gif not mine-also just overlook the fact it’s not a Bucky gif pls!)

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"We got everything?" Sally asked from inside her room. You peeked into the picnic basket and checked to see if you had everything.

"Food, blankets, wine… Yeah, we've got everything," you informed her from the kitchen. Sally made a giddy squalling noise from excitement as her heels clomped against the floor in hurried succession. She trotted over to you with a large grin on her face, her eyes squinted from her cheeks being pushed so far up her face.

"Well, what do ya' think?" She twirled around, her red knee-length dress spinning like a tabletop spinner. She paired it with a comfortable pair of flats and a modestly small hat. Sally's hair was set in curls and her face was brought to life by the subtle pink blush and the rose coloured lipstick. She looked like a Hollywood starlet.

"I think I'm wondering which one of us is going on a date?" You wisecracked. Sally placed her hands on her hips and huffed, pursing her lips in a thin line. You laughed at her serious expression. "I'm joking Sal, you look glamorous, as always."

"You don't look so bad yourself. Wouldn't kill you to try and add some colour to those cheeks though."

Unlike Sally, you had decided against using blush, but you did use a subtle amount of peach lipstick. For your outfit, you chose to go with a simple floral dress, it was white with red flowers decorating the skirt. As was tradition at this point, you chose to wear your favourite brown flats, even if they didn't particularly compliment your dress. The entire ensemble was livened up with the addition of an obnoxiously large white beach hat. You loved how the rim would bounce and play about when you walked, it also protected you from the harsh rays of the sun. You weren't exactly keen on amassing more freckles today, your nose was speckled plenty from the summer sun as it was, and today happened to be clear skies.

"I've been dyin' for an excuse to visit Sue's Farm again. I'm positively excited," Sally chirped. The two of you made your way out of the apartment.

"Where are the boys meetin' us?" Sally asked while she locked the door, leaving you to carry the picnic basket, you didn't mind, you knew it would be a little too heavy for her untrained muscles to carry for extended periods of time.

"Umm, the bus stop I think," you answered.

When you arrived at the bus stop the boys were already seated on the bench waiting for the two of you.

Bucky was as handsome as ever in his casual white t-shirt and brown trousers, he had chosen to wear the same leather jacket he wore on your first date, it was probably his favourite article of clothing.

Steve wore a shirt and blue pants and kept his ensemble plain and smart by wearing a button-up jacket with elbow pads. It was old, probably a family heirloom since it had been sewn and restitched many times, the result was a colourful pattern of patchwork of varying shades of green and blue that gave the jacket a life of its own. It was unique and it suited Steve just fine, even if the shoulders were too broad and he had to fold up the sleeves a couple of time, he looked comfortable in it.

Bucky looked up at you in awe as you made your way closer, Steve's eyes kept darting about not knowing where to look when two beautiful women approached him. You thought he looked adorable, in a shy kind of way.

"There they are, Steve was beginning to think you stood us up, doll," Bucky flashed you a smile.

Steve looked horrified at his best pal and stuttered in a soft voice: "Wh-What? No, I didn't… I wasn't thinking that. I- I-"

"Oh, calm down darlin' we know he's just teasin'," Sally cooed. Steve let out a big breath of relief. You smacked Bucky's arm for teasing Steve so.

Bucky removed his hand that was previously behind his back and handed you a bouquet of flowers. It was nothing elaborate or fancy, just a few stems wrapped in brown paper, but the simple gesture made your heart soar and you giggled as you accepted the flowers, burying your nose in their scent. They smelled eerily similar to the perfume you wore to work.

"Flowers for my best gal'," He declared, and then he stole one stem that stood out higher than the rest and handed it to Sally, "And one for my best gal's, best gal," he chuckled.

"Oh, sweet talker," Sally said as she happily accepted the flower.

Afterwards, Bucky cleared his throat loudly and gave Steve a look, Steve, in turn, fumbled about as he patted down his pockets in search of something. When he found the right pocket he reached inside and pulled out a beautifully embroidered handkerchief with a name obscured by his thumb stitched into it.

"I was going to get your initials printed on, but I know you don't like being called Helen, but then that'd make your initials ER and that sounds like Emergency Room, so before I could make up my mind Bucky told the seamstress to stitch in the name Bartlet Barnes, he thought it would be funny," Steve explained as he handed it to you. "It's my way of saying thanks. I figured you were probably running low on handkerchiefs ever since we became… friends." Steve's cheeks gained some colour when he called you his friend, he looked up at you in uncertainty.

Beside you, Sally all but swooned at Steve's precious expression. Bucky was looking at his best pal with pride in his eyes, they really admired each other, it made you feel a yearning for such a close and trusting relationship.

You graciously took the handkerchief and placed a small peck on Steve's cheek, "Thank you, Steve, I love it." You looked down and traced your fingers over the delicately stitched ‘Bartlet Barnes’ and let out a laugh.

"See, I told you she'd find it funny," Bucky jabbed Steve lightly in a playful manner, Steve just rolled his eyes and let out a shaky laugh of his own, the action making the energy around him appear brighter.

***

The bus ride had taken a little under an hour with all the stops it had to make, by the time you got to your destination it was already midday and the heat was starting to rise by a degree or two.

You had been walking for close to ten minutes since getting off the bus, Sally had whisked Steve away to talk loudly about all the stories in the world, you gathered. The poor guy seemed to be able to do nothing but nod and mutter noises every now and again while she chewed his ear off. He didn't seem to mind though, he wasn't at all bored with all the stories Sally had to offer. You and Bucky walked several steps behind them, hands intertwined as you kept on trying to guess his middle name. He had insisted on carrying the picnic basket.

"Hmm, is it Burke?"

"Yes, Bucky is short for Burke, it's not like they aren't spelt with the same number of letters. Burke is just too much of a hassle to say instead of Bucky," he jested. You rolled your eyes and paid the price for guessing wrong by placing a quick peck on his cheeks. He had to bend a little to make it easier for you to reach his face since walking would have made it harder to tippy toe.

"Balthazar?"

"Wow, that's… that's a creative choice. James Balthazar Barnes? Am I the Tsar of Russia in this scenario?" He chuckled and gladly leaned back down again, his grin refusing to go away. You obliged and pecked his cheek again.

"... Barnabas!" You shouted so loud that Sally and Steve temporarily stopped to look behind their shoulder.

"Barnabas," Bucky parroted with a laugh stuck in his throat. His head snapped back and his body began to shake as he laughed at the idea of being named James Barnabas Barnes. "If my middle name was Barnabas wouldn't it make sense for my nickname to just be ‘Barnes’?" He said through consecutive chuckles.

You started to blush a bit and for the third time, after his laughing fit subsided, Bucky leaned back down to accept your third kiss.

"We're here!" Sally shouted as she pointed to the sign arching above a dirt road, sunflowers growing as tall as the fence surrounding the property. The sign read Sue's Pick-Your-Own-Fruit Farm. There was a painting of a patch of pumpkins and a bushel of apples that was beginning to peel off next on the edges of the sign.

You began to follow the winding dirt road until it led you to a two-story house. There was a stall on the side of the road that had a pitcher of lemonade and a roll of ticket stubs. You went over to the attendant: a woman with a red nose burned by the sun, wearing a straw hat and a denim jacket, her eyes closed in tranquillity, Sue. Her dirty blonde hair was hidden under the hat and she had her muddy boots resting on the stall surface.

"Sue!" You waved as you made your way to her, Sue smiled in return, her dark brown eyes half-lidded from her nap. "One party of four."

"Elle? And is that… Sally? Good to see you gals. One ticket for a party of four. The peach orchard has just started ripening, you should check it out," Sue said as she handed you a ticket stub with the number 34 printed on it.

"Will do," you imbursed her for the price of admission and Sally waved from behind you as you followed the signpost that pointed to the peach orchard.

You and Bucky laid the picnic blanket on the ground overlooking a beautiful view of the peach trees covered in beautiful pink flowers and ripening peaches. The ground was covered in so many pink flowers it looked like pink coloured snow. The subtle sweet smell of peaches coated the cool wind which battled against the last remnants of the summer heat. Sally and Steve had disappeared into the orchard to pick a few peaches.

"How did you find this place?" Bucky asked in astonishment, his eyes taking in the splendid view around you. The area was beautiful, it felt surreal -like it was untouched and apart from the world in turmoil, as it was right now.

"It's a funny story," you began as you sat down on the blanket and opened the wicker basket, offloading the food and wine from inside it, "I took the wrong bus when I first moved to Brooklyn and wound up walking aimlessly for about two hours before I realised I was lost, then Sue pulled up, driving her delivery truck, she offered me a ride back into town and we just got along really well. When I found out she had a fruit picking farm, I made sure to bring Sally here on one of our days off work."

"Getting lost certainly paid off," he mused as he looked around for a bit and then looked down at you. You outstretched your hand, a smile on your face and a rare gentleness in your eyes, the wind blew slightly, sweeping your dark curls along, you made a high pitched noise as your free hand moved swiftly to hold your hat in place, your nose crinkling in laughter. When the wind calmed, you looked back at Bucky. He was looking at you in a way you had never seen before, it was intense and filled with admiration and awe, and you felt the blood rush to your cheeks and your heart began to flutter.

"Bucky?" You asked when his gaze burned into you. He was snapped out of his daze and he took your outstretched hand and joined you on the blanket, positioning himself so that his head rested on your side folded laps. You intertwined your fingers together over his chest, the steady, strong thumping of his heart bringing a sense of comfort with it. You placed your lips on his forehead and just stayed like that for a while, both your eyes watching Sally and Steve pluck peaches in the distance. You breathed in his scent and committed it to memory. Your large brim hat shielding the both of you from the sunlight.

"Elle… “He whispered, his eyes flickering up to yours, the blue in them seemingly more vibrant than they've ever been. The way he spoke your name made your heart beat vigorously against your ribs as the butterflies returned to your stomach, your hands in his felt like they were coated in electric energy. You couldn't understand why him saying your name, the name you were assigned, was having this effect on you, he'd said it over a hundred times already, there was just something different about the way he said it. "I… I--"

He was cut short by a loud snort giggle that undoubtedly belonged to Sally. You looked in her direction and saw that Steve had somehow managed to drop all the peaches he had carried in the makeshift pocket using his shirt and Sally was scurrying about trying to stop the runaway peaches. You turned back to Bucky in hopes he'd finish what he began to say, but the moment had passed.

Bucky straightened out a little, his eyes turning to the sky. He was silent for a second before he sat up to have a better look at your face.

"I think I should go and help them if we expect to have any peaches which aren't bruised," he smirked as he placed a quick kiss on your lips before running down to Sally and Steve and helping them pick up the runaway peaches they had spent the last few minutes picking. For some reason, the annoying feeling of disappointment rooted itself in your chest. You so badly wanted him to finish what he was about to say, but you knew he wasn’t going to. Not now, anyway.

When they returned, you had laid out the food and wine glasses and your planned picnic officially started when Bucky uncorked the cheap red wine.

"How did you two meet?" You asked Steve and Bucky.

Sally looked like she was about to say something on the matter before abruptly she changed her mind. You gave her a look in question as to what she was about to say, Sally shrugged and took a bite out of her peach, "Steve tells it better. I asked him the same question earlier."

Steve looked at Bucky, wondering if he wanted to tell the same story, Bucky just closed his eyes and shook his head. Steve took that as the sign he needed to proceed with telling the story.

"The first time I ever met Bucky, I was still a kid. Because I was scrawny and small, this group of kids who lived around our block used to… well, they were angry and a bunch of bullies. One day, out of the blue, Bucky just made it his business and he stepped in to save me. Ever since then we've been best pals," Steve smiled brightly.

Bucky patted Steve's back and said: "Till the end of the line, pal."

"He's totally underselling it," Sally waved her hands about in an animated fashion, "Let me paint the picture for you…"

Sally began to retell the same tale with excruciating detail -from the clothes Steve was wearing to the time of day this all transpired. No doubt she had acquired her information from scrupulously grilling Steve for every detail he could remember about the day earlier. The whole time this was going on you and Bucky would steal glances of each other, and every odd moment or the other he'd bring your entwined fingers to his mouth to place a small modest kiss on your palm and your wrist and your knuckles.

***

When you and Sally got back from your little day trip, you quickly tossed off your shoes and made your way to the kitchen sink to fill the teapot with water and place your flowers in a vase. Steve had had to carry the picnic basket -which was filled with the remaining peaches from earlier- up the stairs. Bucky was given the job of making sure Sally walked straight as she had had two glasses of wine and was apparently the world’s greatest light-weight.

"Woah!" Bucky exclaimed when Sally knocked into the protruding piece of floor tile you were accustomed to.

"Woopshh!" Sally slurred a little, making Steve snicker as he plopped himself down on the two-man couch.

"A little help buddy?" Bucky asked Steve.

"Nah, I think you're doing great," Steve replied.

"Steve! Ssteeveee, let me tell you sometin' hun. You are the sweetest lil' piece of apple pie I ever saw. You deserve the world. An-" Sally hiccupped, "Ahn, don' you worry darlin', I know there's someone out there that will just eat you up!" She motioned her hands outwards and opened and closed her fists like you would do when you spotted a cute toddler.

Steve blushed, hard, and Bucky snickered silently, biting his lips to keep from making a sound. You raised your brows at him to make sure he knew not to laugh out loud.

"Th- Thanks, Sally. I… Uh- I appreciate that," Steve shuffled awkwardly on the couch, as though he was trying to sink further into it.

"Just lead her to her room, it’s the yellow door over there," you pointed to the obvious yellow door to the left of Bucky.

"Imagine that. I would never have seen it had you not pointed it out. Yellow is such a mute colour after all," he smirked before leading Sally towards the door.

"What's with all the wise-cracking today?" You asked Steve, he just shrugged as unused to this side of Bucky as you were.

From inside Sally's room, you could hear her lecturing Bucky about something. You walked closer to hear what they were saying better.

"Jamesh Buchanan Barnesh, I gotta shay, I absolutely approve of you two. The way you look at her," Sally made an 'Aww' sound, "It meltsh my heart. You should marry her! Marrrryyyy her…" In the background, you heard Bucky frantically try to shush her while also failing to repress another laugh.

Steve cleared his throat. You turned to him with a deer in the headlights expression and he looked at you with raised brows, "Maybe we shouldn't eavesdrop?" The 'we' was his way of not sounding rude since you knew very well he couldn't hear what they were saying, but from the look on your face, he could easily tell you heard something you shouldn't have.

You jogged back to the sink and placed three cups on the counter, deposited three tea bags and filled them with the hot water from the kettle. Bucky re-emerged from Sally's room with a big goofy grin and a blush of his own on his face. He spotted something on the floor and went to pick it up. It was a white envelope that was probably slid under the door earlier which no one had noticed.

"Hey, I think you've got mail," Bucky informed you as he placed the envelope on the counter and picked up two teacups to take to the couch. The letter was addressed to Helen Rushman and had no special markings on it. At first, you thought it was a bill, but those were usually delivered in the mail slot downstairs. You flipped it over and saw a small watermark on the envelope. It was easy to miss unless you looked at it in the right light. And as soon as you determined what it was, your mood dropped and your eyes lost their wonder and happiness.

"Is something wrong?" Steve asked as he made his way to the tin of sugar next to the sink.

You looked away from the letter and placed it back on the counter to keep from arousing any suspicion, "No, it's probably the utility bill, that's all."

You went to join Bucky on the couch, but the emblem of the Hydra skull and tendrils burned into your brain. You found it difficult to enjoy the casual conversation and jokes exchanged between the three of you. Your attention was fixed on your first mission assignment from Hydra that was waiting for you on your kitchen counter.

Chapter Text

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Bucky and you strolled hand in hand as you headed down to the diner. Sally had roped him into stalling you at home until she and Annie and Hal had finished putting up the decorations for your going away party. They had all thought you were clueless as to what they had planned. They didn't know you had been perfecting your happy-surprised face all morning.

"Elle…" Bucky said as he looked on to the cars driving past.

"Yeah, Barnaby?"

You guessed his middle name wrong on purpose. You had heard Sally say his actual middle name out loud the other night when she had been a little tipsy from the wine after your day of peach picking.

Bucky leaned down for you to place a peck on his cheek, his smile never reached his eyes. He had noticed the change in your behaviour since that day.

As hard as you tried, it was difficult to get that stupid letter with your new mission briefs out of your head. You had withdrawn into yourself and Bucky could feel the distance between you two growing.

"Is everything alright? With us I mean?" He asked concerned.

You looked up at him and put on the best smile you could manage, it was one of those cheap dinner-plastic-smiles and you hated yourself for looking at him with such an empty expression.

"Everything is just fine," you lied.

"It's just… You've been a little distant lately."

"Hey," You tugged on his arm and made him face you, "I promise, everything is fine."

You kissed him and hoped the worry would dissipate from his beautiful eyes. You never noticed it but, it never did. Bucky’s eyes had stayed open during the entire kiss. He was worried about you and his heart ached. He wanted you to open up to him, to tell him everything. He wanted to see that bright and pure smile again. The one from the Ferris-wheel.

He wanted to tell you the thing he meant to tell you when you went peach picking. But by God, the one thing he wanted more than anything was to see happiness return to your eyes. He felt like recently you’d been looking through him, not at him.

Would everything be fine?


ONE WEEK EARLIER

"Report," Yelena ordered as you sat across from her in another dingy, ramshackle location. This time it wasn't the dripping sound of a leaky faucet that annoyed you, but rather the whistling sound of wind blowing through a crack in the walls.

You didn't bother looking at your superiors face, instead, you kept your eyes focused on a fly that had landed next to a droplet of coffee that had run off from a coffee cup.

The smell of Yelena's perfume and her slow-burning cigarette and her cup of steaming coffee mixed awfully in the air causing a headache to form on your temple.

You pulled out the envelope with the coded message from Hydra and pushed it towards her. Yelena eyed it but didn't pick it up.

"Report," she repeated. Her pen hammering impatiently atop her open file.

You took a deep breath to calm your nerves and pleaded to whatever gods looked down upon you to give you the strength to keep from snapping at Yelena.

"Hydra has given me my first assignment. It's Howard Stark."

A wicked smile spread across Yelena's ruby red lips and you had to hold back the temptation of slapping it away, she had taken some amusement from your current predicament. You held your hands tightly together under the table.

Yelena ushered you to go on as she took another drag of her cigarette.

"Hydra believes the US government approached Stark to head up Project: Rebirth alongside Doctor Erskine. I am to assume my new role as his secretary at Stark Industries and… uncover whatever evidence there is linking him to the project that I can."

"Well, well, tovarisch. It would seem you have your work cut out for you."

Yelena read over the letter, finally. Her lips moving along with the words, but no sound came out of them:

“Acquire new cover at Stark Industries. Gain access to the personal files of Howard Stark. Confirm if Stark has been approached by the United States government to head Project: Rebirth alongside Dr Abraham Erskine. Retrieve any documents pertaining to this project, as well as, the location it is being carried out. Stark not to be harmed. Once successful, use regular contact method to establish contact. Hail Hydra.”

"Hail Hydra," Yelena whispered sarcastically as she finished reading the missive. A chuckle filling the room. You bit down on your tongue.

The letter read innocent enough. It seemed like an easy intel gathering mission. And with your cover, one would assume it would be easy for you to gain access to Stark's personal files, but that wasn't the case. Maybe that would be the case if Howard Stark seemed like the kind of man to leave important dockets lying about for anyone to find. No, what unsettled you was that there was a hidden implication that lay beneath those brief words.

An implication that meant you would have to get up close and personal with Stark.

The implication being that you were to seduce him.

That implication also meant you would have to put an end to you and Bucky's relationship. If not to prevent unwanted complications, then at least to spare him from you having to constantly lie to him and say everything was fine when you spent your work hours flirting with another man.

Something in Yelena seemed to shift, she didn't look at you with the same empty glazed look as usual. Maybe it was because you weren't as composed as you had thought, but for an instant, you noticed a part of her revert back to that little girl who used to join you in shoplifting from the fruit carts and who would call you 'sestra'.

You saw the old Yelena from before the Red Room.

"Ours is not a life of attachments, little spider. This is what is expected of us. We are chess pieces to be moved by grand players on an endless board. Ours is but to follow..." Her cigarette burned out in her hand, but she kept her eyes on you.

Was that sympathy you saw in them? Whatever it was, it burned you, like the cigarette was burning her. You looked away.

"Let him go. Before you are forced to let him go," Yelena's words became cold and bitter in the end. She spoke as though she had experience on the matter.

You knew she was referring to Bucky, to your relationship with him. What you couldn't figure out was whether it was a thinly veiled threat or honest advice she was giving you.

You didn't bother asking. You just stared at the fly. It had drowned in the coffee, the water had made its wings wet and kept it from flying away. In its endeavour to explore new things, it had ended up ending its own life.

Yelena took the letter and her notepad and walked out of the room in silence. You sat in the dark for a few moments more, afraid to face what awaited for you once you returned to the life of Elle-- Helen Rushman.

Besides, it wasn't as though you could stay as the doe-eyed waitress from nowhere forever. For all you knew, this could have been a good thing, ending things before they got too complicated.

When you left the building it was down pouring hard, but you couldn’t care less. You hoped the cold raindrops would shake loose some emotion other than the empty feeling that presided over you. If anything it only made you aware of how numb you felt.

***

"Surprise!" Sally, Annie, Steve and Hal shouted as you walked into the empty dinner. Hal had hung up a sign that said 'Closed For Private Event' outside.

You mustered up a weak smile and let out a forced giggle as Sally and Annie circled their arms around you in a warm hug.

There was a homemade banner that read: ‘Good Luck At Your New Job!!’

"Two exclamation marks?" You asked the girls. Sally shot Annie an 'I told you so' look and Annie just shrugged it off.

"I can't believe you're leaving us, Elle," Annie said in a high pitch, "It's just… unbelievable."

"Yeah, now who's going to cover for Annie when she decides to mysteriously drop off the face of the Earth because she and her boyfriend got into a fight?" Hal quipped.

Annie gasped, clearly offended and Sally just smacked him on his burly arms.

Sally gave him a disapproving look and Hal cowered under the weight of Sally's intense glare. He cleared his throat and said to Annie, "I'm sorry Annie, I was just making fun."

Annie seemed to cheer up and suddenly that bright smile of Sally's returned and Hal stopped looking like he was shaking in his boots. Those two really did have an interesting type of chemistry.

"Congrats on the new job, Elle," Steve handed you a small box wrapped in newspaper. "It's something I found lying around in my apartment. It's just a little thank you for being such a good friend and for making an honest man out of this guy. Lord knows he was quite the ladies’ man before you came along. It's nice to see him serious about someone," Steve jabbed at his best-friend playfully.

Bucky laughed, a slight blush hidden beneath his ungroomed scruff.

"You need to shave man," Steve told Bucky.

Bucky ran his hands over his beard and posed in a dramatic fashion, "You think? I think if I let it grow out more it would look quite rugged, what do you think Elle?"

A tear had appeared in the corner of your eye as you eyed the small broach Steve had given you. It was old and well-kept and had a few scratches chipping at the gold-plated design. Another heirloom no doubt. It was obvious it had more of a sentimental value than anything else.

You were suddenly reminded of the fact you would never have that. The ability to pass on old trinkets or jewellery to friends and family. That was something you could never have.

"Hey, what's the matter? There's nothing wrong with the gift is there?" Steve said with worry.

Bucky and Sally looked at you with concern in their eyes as you wiped at the tear that trailed down your cheek. You sniffled.

"No, it's perfect. Everything is perfect. I don't deserve you guys," you smiled a real smile for the first time since reading that damned letter.

Bucky placed a kiss on your forehead as he strung his arm around your shoulders. Sally swiped the broach from your fingers and eyed it excitedly. She looked like a little girl who had just gotten a new toy.

"Ain't this the most adorable little broach I have ever seen!" she said excitedly.

The rest of the afternoon had been a series of conversations about your new job at Stark Industries and how you'd turn into some hotshot working in the heart of the city.

Annie swooned over the idea of working for Howard Stark and Sally scrunched her nose at the same thought. Sally always thought all people with money were snobby prudes. It was probably the only flaw about her.

A few photographs were taken, with the photographer circulating between all five of you. Hal said he'd hang the one of you, Bucky, Steve and Sally on the wall to taunt Annie because she wasn't a good enough waitress to warrant being on his wall of fame.

Annie pouted at him and this time Sally didn't reprimand him for his teasing remark, instead, she laughed her sweet sing-song laugh.

When the party was over Sally and Hal had decided to stay behind to clean up. They had forced Annie to help too. Hal had threatened to make her work a double shift with no overtime pay if she refused. Steve said he'd wait with the girls and walk them home. That left you and Bucky alone together as you walked back to your apartment.

“Let him go. Before you are forced to let him go.” Yelena’s words circulated in your thoughts.

"Bucky, we need to talk," you said solemnly as you stood on your stoop.

Bucky's features looked up at you with a comprehensive look. He knew nothing good was coming.

"Nothing good ever comes after someone says 'we need to talk'."

"I think we need to press pause on this thing we’ve got going between us."

"Is it something I did," hurt glossed his eyes, his voice was soft and uncertain.

You tried to steel yourself and keep from rushing to his side and cupping his face and telling him how this was exactly the furthest thing from what you wanted, but you didn't. You couldn't. You would rather hurt him now than hurt him by playing on two fronts with two different men. One was your duty, the other was your heart.

Heart? Were you in love with Bucky? Was that why this was so difficult? Was that why it hurt so much?

"No, I promise you. This is simply because of… my job. I'll be working in the city from now on and I won't have as much free time as before and I just… I just think that we could benefit from some space," you whispered, your own voice cracking slightly.

"Is it because of what Steve said at the diner about me never having been in a serious relationship before?" Bucky's face was on the verge of tears. His fists were balled by his sides as they trembled slightly.

"Bucky please, don't blame yourself. Don't make this harder than it needs to be," you whimpered.

A sad smile appeared on his lips as he moved closer, "It's Buchanan by the way. My middle name."

Bucky pursed his lips and placed a cold, detached kiss on your forehead, "Sleep well," was all he said as he walked away from you, melting into the dark alleyway with his head hanging low.

When he had disappeared from sight you whispered, "Goodbye, James Buchanan Barnes."

***

You were sobbing silently in your room. All the lights were turned off save for one bedside lamp, the open letter taunting you by the foot of the bed. The sound of Sally's door opening and closing had spooked you. You quickly wiped off the tears from your cheeks, sniffling quietly as you cleared your throat before Sally knocked and then opened your door before you had the chance to answer.

"Hey, I just wanted to say congratulations properly on you getting the new job at Sta--" Sally had been distracted from finishing her sentence when she saw your red nose and tear stained eyes. "What happened? Is everything okay?"

"It's nothing, Sally," You said with a hoarse voice. The dull ache in your chest making it hard to breathe, let alone speak words aloud.

Sally didn't buy your tough act and began walking towards you, "Elle, talk to me."

"That's not my--" You sighed, stopping yourself before you revealed something you shouldn't. "I'm fine Sal, really, I just want to be left alone," you raised a hand to erect some fake barrier between you and her.

When she didn't budge you spoke again, with a harsher tone, "I'm fine!" The bite to your words hurt her and Sally recoiled at your dark tone, closing the door behind her as she made her way back to her room.

Another sob escaped your lips as you read the mission brief you had committed to memory over and over and over again. Bucky's sad eyes never leaving your thought for a moment.

Chapter Text

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One Month Later

You sat at the work station of Betty Bloom, one of the employees you had befriended during your 3 weeks at your new job. Her calls were fairly few, giving you a lot of breathing room between calls. On the other end of the operators' office Agnes, a shaky poodle of a woman, was having less of a breezy time.

"Helen, help!" Agnes yelped from her chair by the switchboard, "There are too many calls coming through!" she panicked, lost in a tangle of cables.

You used your chair to swivel to her place as she smoothly moved out the way. "Stark Industries, how may I direct your call?" you asked with the company-polite-policy tone. After a few seconds, you put the right switch in its corresponding section. "Stark Industries, how may I direct your call?" you repeated the process like a record player.

After a few minutes of dealing with the bulk of the calls, you gave Agnes a cheeky wink, "All done. I believe these are yours?" You held up a switchboard jack yet to be connected.

Agnes fanned herself dramatically as she wheeled back to her station, "Girl, I don't know how you do it. You are a literal angel."

"All in a day’s work," you smiled back before heading back to the station you were covering. Betty came back from her quick smoke break soon after. "And Agnes, it's Elle. Never Helen."

"Thank ye, darlin'," Betty retrieved her headsets from you, "You are an actual lifesaver. Now ye best get on, before the handsome Moustachioed Casanova notices you've been gone a minute."

Some of the girls giggled youthfully at Betty's mention of Howard Stark's nickname, others visibly swooned. You thought it best to follow the trend and feigned the same level of adoration the other women showed. You bid the girls a fond adieu and made your way back upstairs to your office.

You had been working as Howard Stark’s secretary for a few weeks now. From early on, the other secretaries showed a colder reception towards you when you first arrived, they probably thought you slept your way to the position considering a lot of the other girls had been vying for this position months before you even stepped foot in Brooklyn. And so you wound up spending time with the much more accepting and lively telephone operators in the basement.

You made your way to your desk, getting a few sour looks from the other secretaries. The piercing intensity of their fiery gaze reminded you a lot of the Red Room and how people you had considered allies could just as easily turn into adversaries. One of them even resembled Yelena which made you grind your teeth every time you saw her permanently squinted eyes. When you got to your desk you were greeted by the all too familiar sounds of your boss, Howard Stark, being a little too cheeky and less attentive than he should be while a suit argued over a patent.

"Howard, you stole my invention, admit it!" the man shouted.

You heard a chuckle and had the urge to peek into the office subtly from behind your desk.

"I did no such thing old boy," Howard said condescendingly. Giving the unknown man a pat on the back. Even you had to admit, he could be charming when you least expected it. "It can't be helped if we both thought up the same idea. It's a mere coincidence."

"That's folly and you know it!"

"Listen here, Frankie. Do you know the difference between your patent and mine?" the suit, Frankie, stayed silent. "The answer is simple. Mine is simply better than yours. See, Stark Industries invents quality, reliable and groundbreaking products. And to be frank, yours just doesn't meet any of those standards."

Frankie was turning beet red, "Why you--"

"Mr Stark, your 3 o'clock is here. Should I tell security to let him up or will you be going down to meet him?" You interjected just in time to diffuse what could have been a rather messy situation. Howard smirked at you, no doubt impressed by your cunning.

"Thank you, Helen but there'll be no need. I was heading out anyway," You didn't bother to correct him. Howard pretended to organise some documents into a briefcase. "Sorry, Frankie. Guess we'll have to continue this stimulating conversation another time. Set a time with my very capable secretary, she'll pencil you in."

Frankie or Frank, whichever it was, muttered a few choice words under his breath before he stormed off in a huff.

"Nice timing there, darlin'," Howard complemented. "To think of all the times my previous secretaries caused a scene by actually calling security… And all the tabloid headlines that followed. Where have you been all my life?" he mused.

"Certainly not running in your circles, Sir." You bit back with a little too much attitude. You were about to apologize until you saw how Howard was looking at you: like his next conquest.

"Ah, the Dame's got bite too," he threw a dashing smile your way. Shameless flirt he was.

Now you got to witness first hand why they called him the Moustachioed Casanova, he did have the curse of charisma.

Howard gathered a file and walked towards you, "Here, file these for me and go down to Research and Development and make sure we didn't actually steal Frankie's designs. Can't have a lawsuit on my ass." He handed you the papers. He lingered for a moment before gathering his coat and hat.

"Of course, Sir."

He stopped by the door of his office and looked at you with a raised brow, "One more thing..."

"Sir?"

"I thought my 3 O'clock was a… woman."

You held back the urge to laugh, "It is. I just didn't think that particular piece of information was pertinent for others to be privy to."

Without warning, Howard placed a harmless, giddy kiss on your cheek. "If only every other secretary could have your smarts!" He said hastily before departing for his 'meeting'.

That would be a frightful thing to behold you thought, knowing full well how devious and merciless assassins could be, let alone underpaid secretaries!

In the background you heard what sounded like him walking into someone, followed by a hasty "Pardon me."

You glanced over at the large file in your hand and at Howard's empty office. Finally! The opportune moment to search his office for anything pertaining to Project Rebirth. The sooner you could uncover a new lead, the sooner you could leave your post and try to go back to the way things were. You felt a sting in your heart when you remembered the sad look on Bucky's face when ended things three weeks ago. You shook those thoughts from your head and got to work.

In a bin, by the doorway of the floor, you saw a fresh bouquet of pink flowers. Strange… You hadn't noticed them when you went for your break in the basement earlier. They reminded you of the peach farm you, Bucky, Sal and Steve had visited.

***

Steve and Bucky were having lunch at a different diner in town. Bucky had had a constant far-away look on his face lately and Steve was getting worried.

One of the waitresses came down, she seemed very interested in hooking Bucky's attention but he simply placed his order and gave a polite smile before gazing back out the window.

"Come on Buck, you can't keep moping about," Steve tried to console his best friend. "It's been three weeks." In all truth, Steve had never seen his pal so worked up over a girl before. If only there was something he could do besides endless pep talks. Steve wracked his brain while he sipped his burnt coffee.

A man besides their table was reading a newspaper that read "12 Month Countdown to Stark Expo".

Steve nudged Bucky and whispered conspiratorially, "Hey, what do you think about the Stark Expo?"

Bucky followed after Steve's eye line and saw the newspaper, "If I'm being honest Steve-O, I haven't thought much about it."

Steve started going off about his thoughts on what was quickly becoming the event of the decade, Bucky nodded his head and gave a few Oh's and Ah's, but really his attention was fully placed on the Uncle Sam poster printed in black and white on the back page that screamed "We Want You!"

"Hey… Buck?" Steve seemed less confident now.

"Yeah?"

"Do you know why Elle… you know, ended things between you two?"

Bucky gazed down at his coffee cup. He began stirring the coffee despite there being no sugar or milk in it. "Work," was all he said.

"That can't be it, can it?"

"She said she'd be too busy, didn't want to hold me back… or something rather."

"And you just went along with it? That's not like you Buck. When you want something you always go for it!"

Bucky chuckled, a smile threatening to spread across his lips, "So what you're saying is, I should never have let her walk out of my life?"

"Come on man, you're absolutely miserable without her!" Steve fidgeted about a bit, he saw a vase with a few wilting flowers in it and suddenly a thought popped into his head. "Hey! Why don't you make some grand gesture and tell her you don't care if she's going to be busier with work or you won’t see her as much. Tell her how you really feel. That you lo--" Steve stopped himself before he said too much.

Bucky mulled over Steve's hopelessly romantic words for a moment. And in a flash, he stood up, placed some money on the counter, thanked his friend and walked out of the diner with purpose.

Steve smiled after his friend as he waited for his food patiently, "Hey, 'scuse me. Mind if I borrow that?" He asked the gentleman with the newspaper.

"Sure thing pal," he handed him the paper.

Bucky made his way to the subway and took the Two-Twenty-Two to midtown. When he reached his stop a whole 30 minutes had passed. It was quarter to 3 when he took the elevator up to the secretarial pool of Stark Industries -having bribed the security personnel 5 bucks and swooning over about winning a girls heart. He had a bouquet of pink flowers that reminded him of their picnic at Sue's Farm, a new found smile that felt strange on his face since becoming accustomed to brooding and a smart head of hair -having used the reflective surface of the elevator to smooth it out. He was ready to win her back! But then he saw something he didn't expect.

Elle was standing in a man's office, he looked to be enjoying her company. Then abruptly, he kissed her cheek, and she didn't protest. Bucky stood frozen in the doorway for a few moments. Only to be snapped out of his haze when the very same man, who he recognised from the papers as Howard Stark, nearly bumped into him on his way out. Bucky felt a surge of red hot boil his blood, but he simply balled his fists and dumped the bouquet in the nearest bin. He chose to leave using the stairs, not wanting to face the security personnel he had told of his plans to woo Elle back.

Walking back to his apartment he saw a large Uncle Sam poster, and this time he felt as though it was pointing right at him. With purpose and still glazed over with anger, Bucky began walking in the opposite direction. In the direction of the nearest recruitment centre.

***

When you returned to your apartment you were beyond exhausted. Not only did you have too many files to sort through -you made a mental note to impose a more efficient filing system on Mr Stark- but you also had to juggle snooping around Howard's office without raising anyone’s suspicions before he returned from his 3 0'Clock meeting.

You kicked off your shoes and placed the lonely bouquet you saw earlier on the table. You filled an old marmalade Jar and snipped the stems shorter before placing the newly hydrated flowers on the counter. You set the kettle on to make some tea and went to change out of your work clothes.

"Elle, darlin' that you?" Sal chimed in from her room.

"Hey, Sal. I just put on the kettle. Want some tea?"

"Oh, swell!" you heard her feet patter across the floor into the kitchen. "Oh, these are wonderful. Who sent them?" She asked in reference to the flowers.

"No idea. Found them in the trash."

"And you just… picked them up?" she wasn't amused.

"It was empty!"

"Oh, well, that makes it okay," she retorted.

"Is that sarcasm?"

"Maybe... this is what happens when you leave me alone with Annie," there was a pause as she removed the whistling kettle from the stove and plopped some cups down. "Oh, there's a card."

You walked out of your room and gave Sal a warm smile. "Who's it from?"

Sal went slightly pale before she balled the card in her hand and walked over to the bin, "No one." You thought her voice sounded odd. She walked back and sat at the count, her hands fidgeting in her pocket. "Probably a lover’s quarrel." She cleared her throat.

"Boy, have I had the most exhausting day--"

"Sorry Hun, I just realised I have to call my brother before it gets too late," Sal practically all but ran into her room. You thought she was acting rather odd but didn't follow up on it. You stretched and headed to the bathroom to run a bath.

***

Sal scoured through her diary looking for Steve's number. She knew she had it somewhere because she called him when she was planning the surprise party she threw for Elle last month.

"Here it is," she cheered. She dialled the number and uncrumpled the card that was on the bouquet. It read: To my best girl, B.

It had to be from Bucky, but how did Elle not notice it? Why hadn't she said anything? And why did Elle find them in the trash? Sal had so many questions and she hoped Steve could answer them, but most of all, she wanted to see if this meant there was space for a reconciliation. Because, honestly, Sal noticed how down Elle's mood had been since she and Bucky split and she imagined Bucky wasn't doing much better either.

When Steve picked up, she almost squealed at the image forming in her mind: Elle and Bucky, back together again!

Chapter Text

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Sally paced about on the floors of the diner waiting for Steve to walk through. She had been giddy all day and had a hard time keeping her excitement from showing. She damn near spooked Elle this morning when she dashed out of the apartment, stating not wanting to be late as the reason. Today wasn't even her shift. Sally was elegantly dressed in a blue blouse and a black skirt, with a red scarf tied around her slender neck to make a bit of a statement.

Grumbling behind her was Hal, who was wiping down his hands still bubbly with dish soap on his apron as he appeared from behind the kitchen counter.

"Sal, stop pacing about. You're making the rest of the customers anxious," he placed his hand on the small of her back. Sal showed no sign of registering the contact. She looked behind his shoulder and stared condescendingly at the three customers at the Diner this early. She cocked an eyebrow at him, he shrugged it off.

"Sorry, Hun. I just… I'm a little excited I could burst!" She admitted.

Hal directed her to a booth in the back, "You're scheming something aren't you?"

"Well if I told you then you'd be in on it too… And we know how bad you are at keeping secrets, Hal," she teased.

"Sal," he shook his head. Just then Steve walked into the diner, the silent chime of the bell drawing their attention to the door. Sally waved enthusiastically at Steve who blushed ay her warm energy. Hal gave a simple nod of acknowledgement.

"Steve, honey, it's great to see you," Sal gave him a warm hug, her eyebrows raising slightly when she saw Steve's shirt. It said Goldie's Boxing Gym on it. Sally couldn't imagine someone as small as Steve in a gym, let alone boxing. "Shoo, Hal. Before the kitchen catches fire." Hal looked as though he was about to protest but made his way back to the kitchen.

"Hey Sally, it's good to see you. I didn't expect your call last night. It was a nice surp--"

"Yes, yes darlin'. Look what Elle brought home last night," Sally handed Steve the card that she found on the bouquet last night, a large smile plastered on her face. Steve, however, wasn't as thrilled. "What's wrong? Isn't this good news?"

"Bucky told me he went to talk to Elle yesterday, but..."

"But?"

"But he said she was pretty chummy with her boss. That Howard Stark guy who's all over the papers."

Sally's pulled her brows closer together, visibly puzzled by what Steve said, "That… that makes no sense. All she does is complain about how arrogant he is. And she's been nothing but miserable since she and Bucky split. You sure it wasn't a misunderstanding?"

"Maybe," Steve awkwardly massaged the muscles of his neck. "Bucky didn't actually talk to her. He left before..."

"Before he could win her heart back?" Sally's eye lit up like diamonds hanging over a chandelier. "But that's the beauty of it. Elle don't fancy mister Fancy Pants Stark! It's Bucky. I can't explain it, but in all the time I've known her… She's never opened up the way she did when she was with him. It was like in the movies. Like lightnin’ struck or somethin'. Don't you see Hun? We have to get them to realise that they're in love!" Her pitch went squeaky and high at the mention of love.

Steve didn't think he had much say in the matter now, he was sure Sal would find a way to rope him into whatever she had planned so he simply hid a chuckle behind his hands that were obscuring his mouth. Then he slowly remembered something and his eyes drooped a little, "there's just one thing you should know."

***

You had spent the majority of your day dealing with files and sorting out Howard's schedule. It wasn't the most engaging work but you had to admit you did get a kick out of watching Howard one-up any businessmen with a bone to chew. The mailman made his way to your table, pushing the squeaky-wheeled cart in front of him. He handed out a few letters to each secretary’s desk, before reaching yours he had absent-mindedly bumped into a blonde haired secretary who was heading back from the copier. He apologised nervously while they both bent down to pick up the scattered mail. She handed him what few letters she had picked up and gave him a smile that made him blush. She was the secretary that always looked at you like you'd stolen her fiancé from the altar. It was jarring seeing her so charming.

When the mailman reached your desk he handed you a stack of letters which most likely belonged to Mr Stark. You thanked him and began to sort through the mail. Some were letters from his lawyer's office, others undoubtedly from scorned lovers but one letter, in particular, drew your attention. It had no return address or any address of any kind. The only thing of note was a watermark of three letters: S.S.R

Curious, you flipped the envelope over in an effort to see if there was any clue as to where the letter came from. Suddenly Howard originated out of his office with one of his many clients in tow.

"Pleasure doing business with you," he showed the man out. The man, in turn, simply huffed in exasperation and stormed out of the building. Stark looked over at your desk and noticed the envelope in your hand. "Is that for me?"

You cleared your throat and composed yourself, "I wasn't sure, sir. It wasn't addressed to anyone."

You handed him the envelope.

"Don't worry, Doll. I'll deal with this personally," Stark winked at you. "I must say, you're looking rather enchanting today."

When you heard him call you 'Doll' you had to physically restrain yourself from thinking about Bucky. His beautiful blue eyes. That boyish laugh of his and his killer smile… God! You missed him so much! You had to keep yourself from getting lost in your happier memories so you clung onto the realisation that Stark had just flirted with you, rather boldly. In the month you'd been working for him, he was never so upfront with his flirting, usually, he'd be a bit more subtle. Unless… was he trying to distract you from the letter?

Keeping up the rouse, you flirted back, "A girl can try." You gave him that signature plastic smile you had perfected while working in the diner. Stark was a little unruffled by it.

"Well, I'll be in my office if there's anything else."

As Stark retreated into his office you found your hand wondering to the pocket of your skirt where you kept the handkerchief Bucky and Steve had gifted you. You pulled it out of your pocket and graced your thumb over the embroidery with the name Bartlet Barnes. Above the name, you had placed the little pin heirloom from Steve. The memory rushed to you like an unstoppable force.

Bucky and Steve waiting by the bus stop. A bundle of flowers, “Flowers for my best gal'.” Steve telling you the funny story as to why the handkerchief had Bartlet Barnes embroidered on it.

“I was going to get your initials printed on, but I know you don’t like being called Helen, but then that’d make your initials ER and that sounds like Emergency Room, so before I could make up my mind Bucky told the seamstress to stitch in the name Bartlet Barnes, he thought it would be funny,” Steve handed you the handkerchief while Sally played with the single flower in her hand and Bucky looked at you and Steve’s adorable interaction with a big, warm smile. “It’s my way of saying thanks. I figured you were probably running low on handkerchiefs ever since we became… friends.”

The emotions were all too much. You sat up like you'd been pricked by something and made your way to the washrooms, hoping no one noticed the tears welling up around your dolled up face.

"Get a hold of yourself, Y/N" you lectured yourself. It had been so long since you'd spoken your own name, or even heard it, that when you first heard it you barely recognised it.

Suddenly, one of the secretaries walked into the bathroom. Sharp pantsuit, red lipstick, blonde hair. You recognised her, she would constantly stare daggers at you from beneath her thick lashes and blonde eyebrows. Her name was Katherine -Kathy for short.

She looked at you menacingly, as though she had some unresolved issue with you. She began kicking in all the stalls to see if there was anyone in the bathroom. Then, slowly, like a jaguar about to pounce, she walked over to the bathroom door and locked it. Placing her make-up bag on the sink counter.

You turned around, puzzled by her behaviour. You were about to ask her what she was doing when she suddenly attacked you. You dodged her jab, but before you could counter she countered with her own attack. She threw a high kick towards your chin but you blocked it with your arms, throwing her off balance. You were about to kick back when your skirt got in the way. You finally understood why Kathy was always in a pantsuit despite how unflattering it looked. The two of you kept up the dance of parrying, countering and attacking to the point it soon became redundant as none of you had successfully landed a hit.

Breathlessly, you held up your guard around your face, "Kathy, what in the hell are you doing?"

Kathy, who was less winded than you dropped her stance and straightened her suit. Facing the mirror, she began tucking away loose strands of hair back in place before reaching into her pocket to take out a makeup pouch. "You're getting sloppy. An agent should always be ready for anything."

Agent? She knew who you were? But which 'agent' was she referring to, Hydra or Black Widow? Not wanting to give anything away you decided to not say anything. You simply mirrored what she did: put down your guard, straightened your clothing and tucked away loose hair strands.

Kathy dug into her bag and handed you a tube of lipstick, "Here, your lips are looking rather lacking."

Cautiously, you took the lipstick tube. You turned it over and saw no distinguishable markings. You popped open the lid and twisted the lipstick base as far as it would allow. You noticed something strange about the weight of the lipstick. So you pulled the top and it revealed a listening device. And etched into the base was a small insignia: a skull with six tentacles. Hydra. Well, that answered that question.

"A simple conversation would have sufficed you know," you chastised. Kathy snorted.

"Can't have you losing your touch… or your edge," Kathy shot back.

"Why break your cover now? I assume your job wasn't just to monitor Stark. That's my job. Which means you were assigned to monitor me, too."

"You're sharper than you look," Kathy laughed, but there was no emotion in it. "That envelope. The one with the SSR watermark. Hydra wants you to find out what's on it."

"How would Hydra know about the letter if I just found out about it a few minutes ago?"

Kathy looked you dead-square in the eyes, "Because Hydra has eyes and ears everywhere."

Great! You were dealing with another Yelena Belova. God help you. You refrained from rolling your eyes at her power trip.

"SSR, they're the organisation responsible for free--" Kathy squinted her eyes at you, "For taking Dr Erskine from Hydra custody, aren't they?"

"That is correct. And whatever is on that letter is vital intelligence that you need to get your hands on. Stark has a safe in his office hidden behind that hideous painting of a dog. That's where he'd most likely keep it."

"And what is this for?" You held up the lipstick listening device.

"We have reason to believe Stark will be meeting with SSR officials at the Stark Expo Gala this coming Saturday. We need to plant it at the meet."

"How do you expect me to get an invite to the Gala with less than 5 days, let alone get close enough to plant this?"

Kathy chuckled, this time with a hint of amusement, "You're a smart girl. I'm sure you'll figure it out. Hail Hydra." She walked out of the washroom as though nothing had happened.

You heaved a sigh and packed away the lipstick. Your life was beyond complicated at this point.

***

When you got back from work you were surprised to see Sally hovering over the stove while listening to the radio.

"Elle, darlin'!" She chimed while still focusing on the food she was preparing. It smelt like pancakes. Pancakes for dinner? This was certainly unusual.

"Hey, Sal. What's the occasion?" You shrugged off your coat and tossed your shoes to the side.

"What? A girl can't cook now?"

"Cooking is one thing. Cooking pancakes -which are my favourite but coincidentally aren't yours- is suspicious," You arched up a brow as you made your way to the kitchen counter.

Sally finally turned around to meet your eyes, "Fine! You caught me! This is a bribe." She handed you a plate of blueberry pancakes. "Sit. Eat. Let me bribe you!"

You did as she commanded and started chewing away at the fluffy pancakes, "So, why the need to bribe me?"

"You see, a friend and I were plannin’ on goin’ dancin’ this weekend and I was hoping you'd come with."

"Sal, you know how I feel about going out. I don't think I'm up for it so soon after Bucky and I--"

"Yes, but see that's the best part!" You looked at Sally suspiciously while she tried to wipe the grin from her face. "It's not a date. It's just a couple of friends goin’ out on the town is all!"

"Come on!" She waved the spatula around. "You need to start having fun again! While you still have the chance..." her voice got softer, it was almost as though she was lamenting something. Before you could ask her what was wrong the smell of burning pancakes drew her attention. "Oh dear!" she whacked at the smoke with her spatula.

You laughed. It had been a while since you had just spent time together. Not thinking about Hydra or the Widows or… Bucky. Maybe she was right. Maybe this is what you needed.

"Alright. You've successfully bribed me. I'm in."

"Oh, yay! It's on Friday. So don't forget to ask for the day off from your snobby, pin-striped-suit wearing boss okay."

You chuckled again. After dinner you helped Sally clean up then you headed to your room and dialled the number of a take-out restaurant in the yellow pages.

"Steak House Restaurant," Yelena's accentless voice answered.

"Hi, I'd like to place an order." You twirled the Hydra listening device in your hand.

"Will that be the regular?"

"No, House Special."

"Your order will be delivered to you in the next hour. Thank you for calling."

After the phone call, you waited for your food order to arrive. Promptly, one hour later someone rang your doorbell. You shouted to Sal to let her know it was for you, tipped the delivery man who was actually the man you had given the tainted serum package to and went into your room. After unwrapping the takeaway food packaging you found a single receipt with a note scribbled on it.

Tomorrow. 5th Ave. Abandoned Train Yard. 9pm. -YB.

***

You waited until you were sure Sal was asleep. Her odd behaviour earlier had nagged you a little, but you tried to push it aside. You couldn't get distracted. You had a mission to do tonight.

When the clock read 02:00am you sat up from the edge of your bed and made your way out of your apartment using the fire escape. After all, you couldn't very well be seen by any mischievous boyfriends sneaking around the halls after a scandalous night with their girlfriends while in full tactical gear.

When you arrived at Stark Industries almost a whole hour had elapsed. You made your way to the fire exit that you had left wedged open after disabling the alarm when you were on your lunch break. A perk of spending time with the phone operator girls was that they had their offices in the basement. Everything seemed a little too easy. Why wasn't there more security?

When you reached the office floor you unlocked the doors using a hairpin and a screwdriver. Once inside Stark's office you looked behind the hideous painting of a dog for the safe Kathy had informed you about. She had been right, but it didn't help that this was a Stark original. After working on the safe for about ten minutes, you finally cracked it. Inside the safe was nothing more than a piece of paper folded so it could stand upright like a name plaque. All it said was: 'Better luck next time.'

"Shit!" you swore under your breath. You contemplated this being a setup but all evidence pointed to the contrary. Which meant Stark kept this safe for show. "Stark you paranoid bastard."

You should have known things weren't right. Everything had been too easy. And now because you hadn't trusted your instincts, the main alarm went off. It seemed you had overestimated your opponent and underestimated your gut. With haste, you gathered up your tools and closed the safe. Then you put back the painting before opening a window and using your grappling gear to repel down the side of the building. For the rest of the night, until you got to your apartment, you had kept your head in a swivel.


Chapter Text

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Tuesday Morning.

You had made sure to dress up in your more flattering clothes today. Your make-up a little more glamour than usual. You made sure to buy a magazine about with a headline to do with the upcoming Expo. When you got to work you noticed the security had been doubled and employees were now required to show their ID at the main desk. It wasn't surprising, what was surprising was that there had been no news about the break-in yesterday.

"Morning, Elle," Agnes greeted you as you boarded the elevator.

"Morning Agnes."

"What's with all the security, all of a sudden?"

The elevator had filled up with several other women and men including Kathy. She gave you a knowing look before pretending to not eavesdrop.

"Beats me," you lied. In the corner of your eye, you noticed Kathy's lip curl upwards.

When the elevator stopped at your floor, you, Kathy and a few others got off. You made your way to your desk, unpacking your magazine and displaying it in a very obvious place before heading over to the kitchen to make two cups of coffee. Once you were done, you took both cups, placing one on the far edge of your desk while drinking from the other as you read the magazine -making it seem rather obvious by having it cover half your face.

"Sir, I really think you ought to consider reporting what happened to the authorities," a muscled man in a black suit and tie urged Howard. "The security breach--"

"Security. Which is exactly what I'm paying you for. Making sure there isn't a security breach. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have an office to stare blankly out of, Old Boy." Howard slapped the muscley man on the shoulder like they were best pals. Tim, the aforementioned man, simply held in an exasperated breath and walked out of the office space.

Howard walked down towards his office, glancing over at you, he noticed the magazine you were reading, he visibly stalled for a moment. "Ugh… Helen, can I have some coffee sent to my office?" He asked in a low lilt.

Before he could walk away, you stood from your seat and grabbed the cup of coffee you had placed by the edge earlier and replied in a sonorous voice, "Already done, Mr Stark." You gave him a charming smile as you handed him the cup of hot coffee.

"Well, I do say, if you keep anticipating my needs before me I'll be forced to give you a raise," he smirked as he took a sip of his coffee.

"Then I suppose I ought to do just that," you answered back harmlessly. Stark seemed slightly caught off guard by your oddly flirty mood today. "Anticipate your needs, that is." You picked up the magazine and sat back down at your desk. Flipping the pages absentmindedly as Stark walked to his office, every now and then stealing a glance at you through the window.

A few hours later, a call came through. It was one of Howard's countless number of dates. She was all giddy and you could practically sense her blushing through the telephone cords. You rolled your eyes, swooning was never a good look on anyone. But then again, maybe you were bitter for another reason. One reason in particular.

"So, tell Howie I'd love to go with him to the Gala," she chuckled like a love-struck puppy.

You held back a sigh, "I'll pass the message along." You ended the call and gathered up all the files you had finished sorting through. You knocked on Stark's door.

"Come in."

"Here are the files you had me sort through," you placed them on his desk. "Sir, if you don't mind my asking. What's with all the increased security today?"

"Oh," he smiled, "Don't let that trouble your pretty head. Probably a disgruntled employee trying to steal Stark secrets. Wouldn't be the first time. Won't be the last. Innovation is a lucrative business, that's why you should never keep your secrets lying about for anyone to find."

You pretended not to have a clue as to what he was saying, pursing your lips out like you were struggling with keeping a single train of thought.

"Ah, it's no worry," Starks waved his hand around dismissively. "Any messages?"

Ah, he was expecting a callback, "No, none sir. Will that be all?"

"Yes, that will be all."

You turned around to leave, making sure not to rush out too quick in case...

"Helen," Stark stood from his desk.

"Sir?"

"I gathered from your reading material that you're interested in the Expo."

"Indeed I am. The 'world of tomorrow' is too thrilling an idea to not be." You flipped your hair to the side.

¨"Ah, see there's a Gala coming up this Saturday. And the most eligible bachelor, like myself, can't be seen without a dame on his arm, such as yourself. Would you like to accompany me?"

You walked over to him, slow and suggestive, "On one condition."

"Name it."

"It will remain a strictly casual, friendly outing."

Stark laughed low, "It's a deal then. Pick you up Saturday."

Later that Day

"Report," Yelena demanded. Her cigarette stained tips rolling an unlit cigarette. This time Yelena had a tape recorder in place of a notepad and pen. The air was cold and damp, a draft kept creeping in through the ajar container door. In the distance, you heard faint sounds of trains moving past.

"Hydra made contact. Turns out they have another agent in Stark's employ. I think she's there to keep an eye on me too."

"Who is she?"

"She goes by the name Katherine. I don't have a last name."

"What's the mission?"

"Stark got a letter from the SSR. Apparently, he's meeting with a big shot within that organisation this Saturday. She wants me to record their session using a listening device."

Yelena cocked a brow your way, lighting her cigarette finally as she sunk into her chair, "Did you bring it with you?"

"To a highly clandestine meeting with my handler who's not a Hydra agent?" You asked rhetorically. "No. I did not."

"Mind the attitude, tovarishch," Yelena warned. After sucking in two long puffs, she continued, "If this meeting is important enough for a Hydra operative to break their cover keeping an eye on you, then this could finally lead us to Erskine's research. Do as they say and report back to us after."

As you stood up to leave, Yelena whispered to you with a hint of concern in her voice, "Tovarishch,, if Hydra had an agent keeping an eye on you, it means they don't trust you. Be careful."

You were stunned, momentarily, but regained your composure when you remembered who you were talking to, "It wouldn't be the first time." You left the train car with no other words spoken. The faint smell of smoke still lingering on your coat.

 

Wednesday

"Come on, Buck. It'll be fun. Dancing, music, a chance to get out of your apartment!" Steve urged his best friend who was laying down on his couch in his slacks and a vest. Steve busied himself with trying to clean up the place a bit. Putting dishes in the sink and tossing any clothes laying about in the hamper. "When was the last time you went out?"

"The last time I let you talk me into doing something…" he retorted, not needing to finish his sentence.

"Yeah, but you never actually talked to Elle. It could have been a misunderstanding."

"He kissed her Steve!"

"On the lips?"

"N- No… but that's not the point."

"Then what is?"

Bucky sat up from the couch, "She broke up with me! And then when I see her after three weeks she's letting her boss give her a non-platonic kiss on the cheek!"

"Oh, Buck. You're jumping to conclusions. And even if that were true, wouldn't you want to know, beyond a doubt, how she felt. You know, before you leave for--"

Bucky chucked a pillow at Steve, "Why do you have to be such a good guy all the time. Why can't you just brood around my apartment like I'm doing?" he asked rhetorically.

"Because if both of us start brooding, we'll never leave this apartment." Steve picked up the pillow Bucky had thrown and used all his strength to playfully hit Bucky back.

"Ough!" Bucky exaggerated.

"Come on. Dancing. Music. A night out. You need it." Steve urged his friend, bringing over a cup of burnt coffee.

"When?" Bucky asked as he sipped at the bitter liquid.

"Friday," Steve said with a smile.

Bucky simply nodded, "Wipe that smug smile off your face. Guess we're going out."

When Steve got to his apartment he made sure the first thing he did was call Sally and let her know everything was in place. Steve prayed them playing matchmaker wouldn't backfire on them.

 

Friday

You had spent most of your week in a rebuttal battle of flirting with Howard. To say it had been taken more of your energy than you'd have like would be an understatement. In a way, you were glad you had agreed to go out with Sally tonight.

You looked in the mirror to see if your outfit complemented your lipstick -you chose rouge. You wore a red dress with a black lace pattern over the satin red and black pumps. You chose to wear lacey fingerless gloves and a small necklace.

"Hey, darlin' you almost ready?" Sally asked from your doorway, her hands fitting in a pair of large fake pearls. "Red?"

"What's wrong with red?" You shot back defensively.

Sally smirked coyly as though she was a mastermind checking all the boxes in her to-do list, "Nothin' it's just… The blue dress is perfect for dancin'. It twirls around you like magic!" She said excitedly.

You bit your lip to keep from smiling, "Alright I'll try on the blue one."

A few minutes later you called Sally back into the room and she gasped like it was the first time she'd seen the dress, "It's absolutely gorgeous. Give us a spin!"

You twirled round and as though the dress was a part of you, it flowed around you in cascades. The material breezing across your knees. You giggled like a teen.

"I suppose this will do."

"Come on then Hun. Let's go before we miss the bus!" Sally linked your arms together and rushed you out of the apartment.

***

Bucky kept running his hands through his fingers, whether it was nerves or just him not being out for a while, he couldn't tell, but he promised Steve he'd stop his brooding and have a fun night out. The Stork Club was filled with people, young and old. Somewhere by the bar cheering with friends while others were at the far end dancing to the live band. Bucky had almost missed the lively atmosphere of places like this. But every time he thought of going out and dancing with some broad, she'd always have the same face and the same laugh. She would always be Elle and it drove him crazy.

He couldn't close his eyes without seeing her face. Even now, in this club, hidden amongst the crowd, he saw her. She looked beautiful as always, the blue dress complementing her figure in a cool aura. She looked like a breath of fresh air amidst all the ladies wearing brighter reds and yellows and greens. He saw her rouge coloured lips and could almost taste their kiss atop the Ferris-Wheel in Coney Island. He could almost remember the exact thoughts he had as the sun set. That was the moment. Maybe if he had told her how he truly felt… Maybe if he had fought harder and not been the gentleman afraid of keeping her from her future. Maybe…

Then she disappeared as though she was never there as the crowd of dancing people grew in number.  

Bucky closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose, he was convinced he was starting to hallucinate her now. "I'm going to go to the bar. I need a drink." He told Steve.

"Don't get lost," his friend teased.  

"A whiskey, neat," he asked the bartender.

"Buy a girl a drink?" A woman's voice spoke beside him. Bucky turned to look at her. She was beautiful he couldn't deny, and the way she looked at him… he was almost tempted to buy her that drink but he knew it would simply be an excuse to forget about Elle and that he'd regret it the next day.

"Sorry, doll. Some other time," he gave her a weak smile, her lips turned downwards, she was disappointed but he didn't care. He downed his drink and went back to find Steve.

***

You walked away from the dancing crowd, feeling the heat in your cheeks. You needed to catch your breath. Sally followed after you, giggling with warmth. You'd be lying if you said this wasn't exactly what you needed. Then you saw someone familiar on the far end of the room.

"Steve!" You shouted in surprise as you saw your little friend alone in a corner. "What are you doing here?" You marched over with Sally still on your heel.

"Uh… Elle, hey! Um, this is a surprise..." Steve fidgeted about.

Without warning, you wrapped your arms around him with a big smile on your face. You didn't realise how much you'd missed him in the last month.

"Wait, if you're here, does that mean--" before you could finish your question you heard that oh-so-familiar voice speak behind you.

"Elle?"

Your breath got caught in your throat and your muscles felt petrified. You were frozen there.

"Bucky..." you whispered too low for anyone to hear.

"Oh my, now this is quite the coincidence. All four of us at the same club. Must be fate!" Sally chimed in from behind you. She quickly grabbed Steve's arms -who looked a little apologetic- and rushed him to the bar. "Steve, how about we get a drink. Catch up. I'm absolutely parched!"

Sally dragged him away as she mouthed an insincere "Sorry," before winking and disappearing.

After a few breaths, you finally had the courage to turn around and meet Bucky's eyes. When you looked into his beautiful blues again for the first time in a month it felt as though you'd been knocked off your feet. You'd almost forgotten how easy it was for him to make your heart race and your cheeks flush. How easy it was for him to turn your steeled conviction into a brittle wall made of plaster.

It was as though time stopped. Everything melted away and all you could focus on was the man standing in front of you.

Bucky snapped his fingers, putting on cool airs in an effort to break the silence, "I should have known Steve was up to something. Usually, I'm the one nagging him to go out." He gave an awkward smile as he rubbed the nape of his neck.

You laughed awkwardly not wanting to fall back into the silence, "Tell me about it. I should be able to smell Sal's devious plans a mile away by now. I guess I've just been too preoccupied with work."

Bucky's head snapped up at the mention of work. His jaw clenched for the briefest moment. It was his tell. "How is it. Your new job?"

"Honestly, I miss the diner. I miss Hal constantly nagging Annie and Sally mothering everyone…" You wanted to say I miss you but you stopped yourself. "Working for an obnoxious genius can be quite draining."

"You seemed pretty chummy to me," Bucky blurted out. He cursed at himself, seemingly regretting his words, but it was too late, you heard him.

What do you mean?" You looked at him, puzzled by his comment. Then it hit you. The pink flowers, Sally's odd behaviour. The setup. "The flowers, they were from you."

"You got them?" Bucky's tone relaying his shock. "But I never gave them to you..."

"I saw from my desk. I assumed one of the secretaries threw them out. I guess they reminded me of the peach tree flowers at the picnic."

Bucky's eyes lit up then, "I thought the same thing." He smiled, genuinely and it made your heart flutter.

"Why did you throw them out?" You placed a hand on his forearm. Bucky looked down at the contact longingly.

"I saw you. And Stark. You seemed… close."

You laughed, something about the idea of you and Stark being together tickled your funny-bone. Maybe it was the irony of the fact getting close to Stark was part of your mission. Or, perhaps, it was because Bucky thought Howard could replace him. If Bucky knew how you truly felt around him, he'd understand how absurd that thought was.

"Howard's known for being a harmless flirt. He cares more for his work than anything. I don't think he'd know what to do if he ever got into a real relationship."

Bucky took a step closer to you, "So then… you and him?"

You smiled, taking the other step forward, "Strictly professional. I promise."  

Bucky smirked, the look of an idea crossing his mind glistening through his eyes, "Well since we're here." He held out his hand. "The band is playing our song, Doll."

There it was, that charm and charisma you'd been craving for so long. The special way he called you 'Doll'. His smile and his outstretched hand. A part of you screamed to stay away, to spare him from any dangers or heartbreak that had convinced you to end things a month ago. But you were tired of being that cautious, good little soldier. For once, you saw what it was you wanted. What you craved with every nerve and cell. And for once, you weren't going to deny it. After all, it was just a dance. One, harmless, short dance.

Your lips turned upwards, your eyes glued to his. "I'd love to."

Bucky took your hand and twirled you towards him. Over his shoulder, you saw Sally bounding and bouncing about, no doubt proud of her intervening. Steve also seemed quite pleased with himself.

When the band played something slow, you rested your ear on his chest and listened to his heartbeat. With each beat, you felt joy begin to build within your own heart. All night you'd had this large smile that refused to subside -and so did Bucky.

The two of you stumbled out of the crowd of dancing bodies and headed towards the back exit in need of cool air. The band's lively music, still audible from the amber coloured alleyway. You lifted your head and took a deep breath, condensation forming when you breathed out.

"God, I missed this," You admitted to Bucky as you blew at a strand of hair that had come undone from its pin. On instinct, Bucky tucked it behind your ear, but as soon as he realised what he did -touch you as though you were still familiar with each other- he cleared his throat and bit his lower lip. "Sorry, a force of habit."

Before you could stop yourself you blurted out, "I've missed you, Buck."

Bucky placed one hand around your cheek, the other around the small of your back. He held your gaze for a moment, as though looking for any indication you didn't like where this was going, you didn't give any such signs. He leaned in and you closed in the distance. And after what felt like an age stretching out forever, his lips met yours and the two of you were lip-locked in a passionate embrace. Lost in the heat of the moment, you leaned into his touch. Your hands folded across his back, a moan escaping your lips as he guided your body towards a wall, pinning you there while one hand moved achingly slowly from your waist to your thigh. His grip was greedy and a little rough causing you to quiver, he could feel your body shake against his chest making him deepen your kiss even more. You let out a second moan when he suddenly stopped.

"Why did you stop?" You asked with deeply flushed cheeks and swollen lips.

Bucky's thumb graced your cheek as if trying to make sure you were real, you tilted your head against his hand, letting him know you were with him in this moment. "Do you have any idea what effect you have on me?" There was a tinge of pain hidden in those words, it made you rush to cup his cheeks and reassure him.

He clasped both your hands, "I just, I need to say this."

You had a feeling that whatever it was he was about to say, it had the power to change things forever. You swallowed hard, almost afraid of what he was about to say, but you owed him this much.

"Okay," you whispered softly.

"Before you, I had never really felt anything close to what I feel when I'm around you. I felt… I feel invincible, like I can do anything! I never imagined it could feel like this, being with someone. But then, I had to let you go, because I was convinced I couldn't be the one to hold you back from your new job, from your new future. But… I hate that I didn't fight for you. I hate that I decided to take the high road. You drive me crazy, Elle…"

You flinched when he called you Elle. More than anything you wanted him to call you by your real name. You wanted to be completely transparent with him.

"I want you back," he kissed your knuckles before letting them go. He brought his hand back to your face, his eyes boring deep into your soul you felt like you couldn't breathe as long as they were on you. "I need you back."

"James Buchanan Barnes… I never stopped being yours. You had me at 'Hello'." You kissed him again this time it was less greed and passion. It was tender and soft. It was a silent I love you.

The vibrations of Bucky's laugh travelled through the kiss making your knees buckle.

"Want to get out of here?" He asked with an extended hand.

You placed your hand in his, "Lead the way."  

As you walked away from the club, rain clouds began to form and in no time, the smell of rain filled the air with promise. 


Chapter Text

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The rain began to pour in soft, satin-like droplets. Each bead of water causing a shiver down your spine. Your dress and hair were practically soaked. Your hair-pins were weighed down by wet curls that refused to stay put.

Bucky had taken off his jacket and placed it around your shoulders as you headed for shelter. His apartment was closer, so naturally, you had both decided to go there to wait out the weather.

Bucky's shirt had all but soaked through too. Revealing a tease of his muscled chest and strong arms hiding under his clinging white shirt. His arm still on the small of your back as he led you up the steps to his apartment. A second shiver ran through your body, but it wasn’t from the cold. To compose yourself, you gripped his jacket firmly around your body, the scent of his cologne, faint but noticeable. It was a smell you'd sworn you'd never forget and to your relief, you were reassured that you hadn’t. His jacket smelled just like you remembered. Just like you’d memorised.

Under the cover of the porch, Bucky patted his trousers in search of his keys. "I'm always losing those damned things!" He swore to himself.

You watched as he kept patting down his pockets one after another, before starting again. You bit your lips to keep your grin from evolving into a tooth one. You dug your hands into your pockets and felt the familiar cold tinge of metal on skin. You pulled the keys out of your pocket and dangled them close to Bucky's face. A warm blush settled over his face when he realised they had been in his jacket the whole time.

"Looking for something?" You teased. Right then, for some reason, his stare turned serious. He grabbed the keys from your hands but never broke the contact of his hand on yours. He held your hand close to his chest and you could all but feel his heart hammering against his strong chest.

With one foot forward and another hand cupping your chilling cheeks he whispered, "No. I found it..." As he inched closer you couldn't help but think he wasn't talking about his stupid keys.

"Buck?" You began, but before you could get another word in, he had all but drawn you in. His soft lips brushed against yours, his warm breath tickling your skin -igniting a warm spark that threatened to chase the cold from the rain-saturated clothes. And then, just as you dangled on the electrified precipice of his touch, he pulled back. A cheeky smile and a sly expression on his lit up face.

"Let's get you inside before we catch pneumonia," he joked.

You were so bewildered by the intense emotions trying to surface that you didn't notice Bucky walk you into his apartment and, like the gentleman he was, take the soaked jacket off your shoulders and place it on a set of hooks by the door.

It wasn't until he brought his eyes to your eye-line and shook your shoulders lightly that you realised he had asked you a question.

"What?" You said softly, unsure of what he had said.

Bucky let out a bemused huff of air, "I asked if you'd be more comfortable in something a little less… wet?" He said with a harmless smile. But when he mulled his words over, his brows rose up and his eyes went wide. He looked like a child that just got caught eating a cookie before dinner.

You chuckled at the suggestiveness of the question. Something about this moment made you feel exposed. Without armour. And by the nervous tone hanging around Bucky's words, you figured he felt just the same.

Bucky cleared his throat, "What I meant was, I have some dry clothes you can borrow. They're probably more comfortable than..." Bucky searched for the right words, but the sight of you in your clinging dress made it difficult for him to stay on track. It didn't help that the outside world was drowned out by the sound of raindrops hitting the roof and windows in a lulling mood.

You looked down and noticed how tightly the fabric stuck to your body. It didn't leave much to the imagination. Your head snapped up and so did Bucky's.

"Uh, yes. Yes. Dry clothes seem like a good idea… Are a good idea!" You had a hard time not stuttering your words.

Bucky tried to wipe away the hungry expression in his eyes by running his hands through his damp hair and taking a deep breath. He walked towards a door less room and disappeared in the unlit setting. When he re-emerged he was holding a folded, crisp white shirt and a pair of brown trousers.

"You can change in the bathroom. It's right through there," he pointed to the only other door in the apartment. When you graciously took the clothes he added, "I'll put some coffee on the stove."

You simply nodded and walked into the bathroom. With the comfort of solitude, you set the clothes on the sink and spent the next minute trying to calm your nerves. The feeling of electricity in your toes and fingertips made it difficult for you to focus your thoughts. You repeatedly waved your hands about as though you were having a hot flash, blowing out air through achingly untouched lips.

"Get a grip. This isn't the first time he's kissed you!" You snapped at your reflection lowly. But the stern execution of your words had no effect on your racing heart and flushed skin. Your eyes caught glimpse of a ticket stub fixed between the mirror and its frame. It had the words '*Coney Island*' printed on it. He had kept the ticket stubs from your date. Guilt and joy caused a storm in your stomach. It felt like butterflies, but also not quite. You sighed, averting your gaze.

Admitting defeat, you resigned yourself to focus on changing out of your clothes. When you put on the white shirt you couldn't help but notice how comforting Bucky's scent smelled. A coy smile spread across your face when you saw how cosy you looked in his garbs. You hung your dress on an empty towel rack. Suddenly, a dangerous thought began to swim around your mind. What if that towel rack belonged to you? What if there were two toothbrushes in the porcelain cup beside the sink instead of one? What if… You shook your head. Such thoughts weren't just dangerous, they were ludicrous. Someone like you couldn't afford to place hope in hypotheticals. Your life wasn't your own. The realisation hit you like a tonne of bricks and you felt your steely conviction return.

When you emerged from the bathroom, you were greeted by the sight of a newly changed Bucky pouring two cups of coffee. He wore simple slacks and a shirt identical to yours. He looked particularly domestic. You could imagine him reading the papers in the morning, mentally battling a crossword puzzle while his coffee grew cold just as the morning sun illuminated his face. Those blue eyes of his rivalling any morning sky.

‘What if's’ are certainly dangerous, you mused solemnly as you sat at his kitchen table.

"The shirt looks good on you," Bucky mused out loud. You raised a brow at him. He shrugged unapologetically. "Well, better than it ever looked on me." Bucky sat across from you, blowing at his cup of coffee.

"Somehow, I doubt that," Your eyes raked over Bucky's well-toned figure.

"Trust me," he reassured. And then it happened again. That long pause. The hush was neither uncomfortable nor empty. The lingering looks. Your heart, betraying you by skipping several beats while your body yearned to be touched. It was overpowering. You stood from the chair under the guise of perusing his apartment.

You saw a family picture held by a chipped frame hung on the wall where his calendar and key hooks hung. You noticed he hadn't flipped the calendar to the current month. There was a day circled in red pen with a note: Elle's surprise party. Diner. 6pm.

Your throat constricted at the memory of your going away party. Instead of dwelling, you made small talk about the picture. "Is this your family?" You pointed at the frame.

Bucky nodded enthusiastically, "Yup. The proud Barnes clan. In all its glory." He took a sip of his coffee, a proud smile on his face.

"You didn't tell me you had siblings," you said intrigued.

"I would have," he said. You hummed softly. "What I mean is… whenever we were together, I planned to tell you but I just got so wrapped up in… Us." The way he said 'Us' made it difficult to breathe. You moved on to something else, fighting to keep your composure while Bucky followed after behind you.  

You walked into his living room, which was just about the same size as your own -just large enough for a rug, coffee table, small bookshelf and a couch. On the table, you saw a hardback bound book. There was a piece of paper wedged between its pages -a makeshift bookmark. You read the title. "Heart of Darkness."

"A little stuffy for my taste but it kept me busy. Steve lent it to me."

"I can agree with you on that." You flipped through the pages and noticed a few scribbles on the edges until it opened on the bookmarked page. Your breath hitched in surprise. Bucky had used the napkin Sally had used to write your phone number and address as his bookmark. With shaky fingers, you ran your hands over the familiar digits written in an overzealous cursive.

And suddenly you couldn't do it any longer. You couldn't keep yourself together. You turned to look at Bucky with tears on the brim of your eyes. He moved instinctively towards you and held you.

You had tried to remain a ghost in this town. You had tried to not leave any traces of yourself. But here you were, a presence in Bucky's apartment even though you had never stepped a foot inside it until today. You were like a ghost kept alive by remnants attached to his memories. The napkin. The unchanged calendar. The ticket stubs. Whether you liked it or not, you had failed at remaining invisible. You were a part of his life and he was undeniably a part of yours. That wasn't a "What if".

"Oh, Bucky. I've missed you," You hugged him closer to you.

"Not as much as I've missed you," he said softly.

You looked up with foggy eyes, your lips trembling slightly, and then you kissed him. Deeply. And he kissed you back with just as much enthusiasm and vigour -if not more. The kiss lingered for ages, but it also felt quick. All the distant worries and words of warning disappeared in a fog. In this room, in this apartment, and in this moment, nothing else mattered except the man whose arms held you.

When the kiss finally ended, Bucky with bated breath, whispered with closed eyes, "Will you stay?"

You stared at his face. Vulnerable and without any armour, and you were completely captured by his raw emotion. You wondered if a tear would slip if he opened his eyes. So you kissed the edge of his face, where you imagined crow’s feet would one day form and said, "Yes."

With the uttering of that one feeble word, Bucky's face lit up like it was Christmas. He opened his eyes and swooped you closer to his chest before he twirled you slightly. You couldn't help but giggle at his giddiness. When he set you down, you were both locked in another kiss. This one was different. Hungrier, more wanting. Before you knew it, the two of you were leading each other to the bedroom, helping each other discard obstructing clothing.

Bucky laid you down onto his firm mattress before removing his t-shirt and vest -hurriedly- before joining you.

"God," Bucky exclaimed as you pressed sweet kisses along his collar bone to his ear lobe. A shiver trickled over his abdomen as he tucked a stray hair behind your ear before pressing a chaste kiss to your nose. "You have no idea how long I've dreamed of this moment."

You looked into his eyes and a coy smile spread across your lips, "And now that you've got me here, what will you do with me, James Buchanan Barnes?" You stressed his name slow and suggestively.

He chuckled low and deep and it reverberated across your chest, "I have a few ideas."

With each new article of clothing removed, you peppered each other in kisses and filled the air with moans and soft sighs. Every nerve in your body came alive with an electricity you'd never felt before. It was both surreal and the most real thing you'd ever felt. Eventually, you were both naked and writhing against each other.

When Bucky entered you, slow and languid, you bit your lip with anticipation. Rocking your hips back and forth to express your own want. Bucky had a hard time controlling his own grunts of pleasure.

"Bucky," you whispered slowly when his pace was slow and tantalising.

"Elle," he whispered back between hot pants. For a moment, it stung -hearing him call out to your false name. You wanted his to moan your name. Your real name. But the overwhelming feeling of being embraced by the man you… cared deeply for, was enough to snap your mind back into the blissful moment you shared.

Bucky's pace quickened and his hands began to roam your body. Kneading breasts and gripping your hips with a slight roughness you savoured. You mimicked his movements and soon your own arms began to rake at his back and squeezed the firm muscles of his ass.

"Oh god, Buck! More. Yes!" You were numb to everything but the pleasure of his touch.

Bucky nibbled at your ear lobe and teased, "You're really cute when you moan my name like that!" He chuckled,

You bit his collarbone playfully in retaliation.

"Nggg! That's playing dirty."

"Don't tease, Buchanan. Ahhh!"

And before you knew it, his pace had turned to sputtering thrusts and his kisses became sloppy.

You felt the pressure building between your legs. The friction between your bodies, applying ample amounts of pressure to your undulating core. Specks began to form in your vision and you bit down on your lip and death gripped the pillow to maintain your focus on the wonderful feeling spreading from your centre to your fingers and toes. And just before you climaxed, you screamed, "Bucky!"

Bucky followed a few thrusts later. Your ears were hot and still ringing from your own climax that you didn't quite catch the words that slipped through his shaky breaths.

***

Bucky's thumb slowly rubbed against your thigh as you both laid back completely sated with flustered cheeks. His other hand was draped around you, holding you close to his chest. You could hear his loud strong heart beating beneath you. A warm smile spread across your lips.

"Elle," you felt his breathing pause. "I need to tell you something."

You looked up to see his face, it looked conflicted. "What is it?"

"I- I don't want there to be any secrets between us. Not after…"

You cradled his face between your hands, "Hey… What is it?" You asked softly.

"I enlisted."

Those two small words clashed uncomfortably in your gut. On the one hand, you were proud. How could you not be? Bucky was a protective man. He protected people, just like he did countless times with Steve. That was something that always drew you to him. But on the other hand, it meant one way or another, the reality of you losing him was becoming more and more clear.

You searched your mind for the appropriate thing to say, but ultimately settled for what you felt to be right, "I wouldn't expect anything less."

"I know I just got you back. And I don't want to be apart from you again but…"

"It's inevitable now," you finished his thought for him, placing your head back on his chest.

After a moment of silence, Bucky spoke again, only this time with a slight waver in his tone. "Will you wait for me?"

You wanted to give into the moment and just say yes. You wanted to mean it too, but your life wasn't simply your own to promise away. But your heart was.

"I can promise that my heart will always belong to you, Bucky." You kissed his jawline.

He looked down at you half frazzled, half proud. "Are you trying to say you love me?"

You hummed, "Maybe I am."

Bucky snaked his arms around you and shifted his weight so he was above you once more. He kissed your forehead and smiled warmly. "Good. Because I've been dying to say 'I love you' too."

And just like that, Bucky had managed to knock the breath right out of you and leave you speechless. Your heart felt full and heavy, like it would explode if not for Bucky's beautiful sea coloured eyes keeping you grounded. All you could do was grin from ear to ear to like a happy fool. Which was exactly what you were in this moment: a fool happy in love. And nothing, not time or distance, would take this memory away from the two of you.

Chapter Text

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The next morning snuck up on you like a tentative chameleon slowly inching closer. Sunlight fell upon Bucky's lace lined curtains, drawing intricate patterns of warm amber light on your body. The sound of a bird cooing in a nearby nest forced your eyes open. The feel of Bucky's arms coiled around your frame, while under his thin green sheets, had a more surprising effect on you than you could have imagined. You'd dreamed of being here, in his apartment -in his bed- with him, but you had always tried to force those thoughts from your mind because you thought such simple human desires were not yours to have. And now your heart was fluttering from the simple touch of the man lying beside you, eyes half-hooded in half sleep.

You brought your fingers to trace the curves and slants of Bucky's face and he instinctively leaned into your touch, a small murmur of contentment escaping his lips. You smiled. This was nice. It was beyond nice, it was perfect.

"Morning, Doll." Bucky's arms pulled you closer to his chest before he placed a kiss on your forehead without opening his eyes.

"Good morning." You replied fondly. You nuzzled into his embrace, eliciting a soft chuckle from Bucky -a small smile tugging at his lips.

"This almost feels too good to be true," Bucky said. You looked up at him. This time his eyes were wide open with a faint inkling of sadness in them.

"Almost" You reminded him as you placed sweet kisses from his forehead to his nose to his lips. And then he was kissing you back, tightening his grip around your waist. Was this what euphoria felt like? Was this what it was like to have a dream and see it come to life around you? The thought scared you because more than anything it showed that you too hungered for simplicity and happiness. The scariest part of it all was the fact you had found in in the arms of a man who could never know the truth about you and where you came from… where you'd undoubtedly leave to -despite how much you wanted to stay in his arms forever.

As Bucky shifted his weight on top of you, his kiss growing deeper and hungrier, you're stomach protested with a loud grumble making the both of you still and then laugh into your kiss.

"Breakfast?" He asked with a dashing smile.

You nodded your head enthusiastically, "Famished."

With that, Bucky climbed out of bed, put on some slacks and helped you out of your warm spot in his bed, handing you the shirt you had borrowed the night before.

"How does an omelette sound?"

You snaked your arms around his waist, "Perfect."

***

"Mmmm," you said as you finished your last bite, washing it down with strong black coffee. "If I had known you were this good in the kitchen I would have stayed the night sooner. Much sooner." You winked at Bucky.

He gave you a warm laugh, taking a swig from his own cup, "I'm all about surprises."

"I don't get it... If you've always had these master chef skills, why were you and Steve my main regulars at the diner? Hal's cooking is good, but not this good."

Bucky smirked at you, "You make a girl one meal and suddenly he's a master chef," he joked. After he took his third swig, he rested his arms on the table and leaned in close, as though he were about to spill top secrets.

"The main reason is... I was sort of sweet on this waitress that worked there. Serious face, striking eyes, about your height. In fact, you kind of look like her. She'd always guessed my name wrong. It was adorable." He teased.

You smacked his arm playfully, "Ha ha, Barnes. You're a regular comedian." You rolled your eyes.

He leaned back in his chair, sunlight lightening his usually dark hair, making his eyes seem even brighter as he brought his cup back to his lips, "Too bad she doesn't work there anymore."

You could get used to seeing him like this; all relaxed and happy in is small apartment just large enough for two.

"Speaking of work," you broke through the quiet moment. Bucky seemed more attentive, his posture clenching slightly at your mention of work. "There's something I need to tell you..."

Bucky shifted to make himself look less on edge, Howard must really be a bigger issue to him than he let on. You couldn't blame him. The first and only time he ran into him, Howard and you had been more than professionally polite when he had tried to use his roguish charm on you.

"I have a work dinner."

Bucky seemed to relax again.

"It's with Howard." You finished and Bucky tensed all over again, an unreadable expression on his face. You felt the need to reassure him. "Hey, listen-" you placed your hand on his and he entwined your fingers seamlessly. "It's not a date. It's strictly professional."

"Taking your secretary on a work dinner is professional all of a sudden?" He huffed bitterly.

"Trust me, Buck. Besides, he's too flashy for my tastes," you tried to lighten the mood. It worked, but not entirely.

Bucky sighed, "It's not you I distrust. It doesn't help that you're exactly his type."

"And what's that, not interested?"

He chuckled then, "No, breath-taking. And incredibly too smart for him."

You blushed, feeling butterflies glide about in your stomach.

You squeezed his hand, "Buck, you can trust me. He just needs someone to look pretty on his arm for all those tabloids he loves posing for. There's nothing going on between him and me. Even if we hadn't gotten back together."

Bucky's eyes shot to yours, something warm aglow about them. His look shook you to your core.

"What?" You asked.

"You just said we're back together," he said softly.

You gazed to his open bedroom door and then back at him, "I'd think it was pretty obvious, after last night."

"It's one thing to assume. It's another to hear you say it."

You stood from the chair and walked over to where Bucky sat, wrapping your arms around his chest as your cheeks touched side by side. Buck breathed in your scent. "You know I'm yours. Always."

“He just better keep his hands to himself, is all.”

Out of nowhere, something fast and small crashed into Bucky's window. You stiffened defensively, you muscles readying themselves for a fight. Bucky on the other hand, although alert, was more curious than anything else.

As he walked over to the window, you grabbed onto his arm. "Bucky, wait."

He stopped dead in his tracks, looked to you and then your death grip on his arm with a baffled expression.

"Hey, it's okay. Probably just the kids in the neighbourhood." He said nonchalantly before continuing forward. You followed suit, not at all relaxed as he was.

"Ah, there's the culprit," Bucky said as he bent down to pick up something. He turned to you and tossed the small, harmless baseball your way. Through the window, you could see several short legs running away down the street. "And there they go." He sighed, but it wasn't in disappointment. It shocked you that he wasn't at all upset about his window with the noticeable hole through it.

You felt yourself relax as you began to playfully toss the baseball about.

"Aren't you mad?"

Bucky strode over to you, "Should I be?"

"Bucky, there's a hole in your window. There is actual damage done to your property." You said baffled by his response. He simply shrugged and ran a hand through his hair, ruffling it more.

"If only you knew the kind of trouble I used to get up to with Steve as a kid," was all he gave in explanation.

Bucky went to the kitchen to grab a broom and you continued to toss the ball around when something caught your eye. The numbers 12061938 were etched into it. If someone else had seen them they would have simply thought it a manufacturing number or just some quirky numbering system, but you weren't just someone. Those numbers had been placed there on purpose. In fact, they weren't random numbers at all, it was the date you graduated from the Red Room. This wasn't just a harmless incident as you had thought. This was a message.

Bucky popped out from your peripheral, kneeling to sweep up the broken glass.

With fury in your eyes and a strain in your voice you said, "I have to go."

Bucky stopped then, something in your voice made him visibly aware of your shift in mood.

"I just remembered, there's someone I was supposed to meet," you said as you scurried to gather your things.

"Is this about work?" Bucky asked.

"Undoubtedly," was all you said as you left his apartment in a flurry.

***

When you arrived at the train boxcar where you had had your last meet, you were not at all astounded to find Yelena sitting in the dark, the only thing alerting you to her presence was the burning end of her cigarette.

"About time, tovarishch."

"Is this a fucking threat?" You tossed the baseball at her with deadly intent.

She grabbed the speeding projectile faultlessly. Her polished red rails raking over the stitched seams. She stood from her seat, leaving her cigarette to dangle between rouge lips, taking a painfully long drag. The fire burning with more vigour at the sudden inhale of air, illuminating her cold eyes. Then she pulled the cigarette out of her mouth and tossed it close to your own, bridging the distance between you as she clomped on top of it with her heel, extinguishing her cigarette with an exhale of smoke.

A cloud of smoke shifted around you, but you didn't flinch. You didn't even blink. Yelena grinned like she had just heard the funniest joke in the universe.

"Trust me, tovarishch. If it was a threat, you wouldn't have the need to ask." Her shoulder brushed passed you as she stepped out of the boxcar and started walking at a lazy pace down the decommissioned rail-line. You followed after her, but not before letting enough space spread between you so as to show her you weren't to be dogged around.

"It was simply a friendly reminder," she continued. "About what's really important. You aren't here to make nice… Well, you aren't here to make nice with him. Bucky is such an unusual name. Americans."

You glared, feeling your stomach knot uncomfortably when Bucky's name escaped Yelena's lips.

Fuck.

"I'm sure they'd find our names equally unusual."

Yelena eyed you, then smiled. "I suppose you're right."

"How much did you bribe those kids?"

"I didn't. I'm not here remember. I'm just a ghost. Watching over her asset."

"Did you tell them?"

Yelena hummed thoughtfully, "They need to know the vital details. Minor slips of judgement on my operative’s part do not cover that distinction."

You let out a breath and closed your eyes in relief for a moment.

"I think it's time we speed up your timeline. Your cover is proving to be a much bigger inconvenience than I'd like. Use everything at your disposal. Just be mindful not to completely tarnish your standing with Hydra while you're at it. HQ is getting impatient with your lack of results."

Anger bubbled to the surface, your eyes narrowing into piercing slits. "My lack of results? I risked my cover and my life to break into a military-guarded compound to steal that sample of super serum!" You said, calmness and composer cast aside.

"Mind your tone! Tovarishch..." Yelena's grip tightened around the baseball. "No matter how you remember that mission, it was not a success. You were sent here to find the exact location of Dr Erskine and secure his research, a sample of his new serum and find out exactly what secret weapon he's been working on with Howard Stark. It wasn't to secure a sample of the defective serum."

You removed your eyes from Yelena's unimpressed expression to the ground. Nodding in compliance like the good little spider you were.

Yelena looked at her watch and then tossed you the baseball. The sound of it slapping against your palm echoing against the metal train cars.

"You should get going. Don't you have a date with the CEO of Stark Tech?"

Yelena continued working, pleased with the fact she got the last word. You were going to leave it there. Return back to your apartment and get on with your mission, but your lips moved with a life all their own.

"I want out."

Yelena froze but didn't turn, "There is no out. This isn't a part-time job, this is our life."

"It's not enough."

"It will have to be," Yelena said in a tone that indicated she was done with the discussion, but again, your lips took on a life of their own.

"What if I strike a trade? If I get you what you want. If I can get everything- the research, Erskine's location and a sample of the serum… will it be enough?"

"And if I say no?" Her tone was curious.

You lifted your head allowing you to stare daggers at Yelena's exposed back, "It's a competitive world out there. Hydra. The Widows. Whatever program the military is working on. We are all vying for the same thing: intel against each other."

That caused Yelena to turn around.

"Are you threatening me, tovarishch?" She laughed. "That would be a commendable feat, if not foolish. You forget, I'm simply a small part of something larger. Even if you followed through with that threat, being a Widow is for life. The only way you truly get out is when you stop breathing."

It wasn't a threat. In fact, as much as you hated Yelena, she had a point. There were always higher-ups, always someone to report to. And yours wasn’t a small operation either.

"Now, we've dallied enough," Yelena waited for you to take your leave. When you did, she spoke after you, "And tovarishch, if you ever speak of such things again, I won’t wait for the order to come in, I'll kill you myself."

Tension permeated the air as you each walked away in opposite directions.

***

"Don't you look ravishing," Howard said as his butler held the car door open for the two of you.

"Why thank you, Mr Stark," you said with fake enthusiasm. You tried to seem enchanted, but it was hard considering your meet with Yelena had left such a sour note on your day. You felt robbed of your happiness, it had started out so promising too.

"Please," he placed a kiss on your knuckles. "Tonight it's Howard." He flashed you a dastardly smile.

You cleared your throat, "For professionalism's sake, let's stick to Mr Stark." You smiled flatly. Howard noticed your energy was not as playful as he'd come to expect from your frequent tete-a-tete's.

The two of you climbed into the car as the butler made his rounds: closing the door and heading for the driver’s seat.

"Is everything okay? You seem… tense." Howard remarked.

"Just… some unfortunate family news," You lied.

"Oh is everything alright?"  

"It's yet to be seen."

The rest of the car ride was kept in silence.

Most of the night you had been draped around Howard's arm, playing the role of his eye candy. He'd been sat next to some important people. Investors, decorated military personnel, a senator. You'd pretend not to pay attention to the table when they would speak of business matters. Preferring instead to pull a pout and seem sullen at the lack of attention as you nursed a champagne float.

Unbeknownst to them, you had snuck the listening device Kathrine gave you under your napkin. They were cautious though. If they spoke of anything important, they undoubtedly used code since you couldn't pick out anything worth looking into. The good news was that Hydra probably wouldn't have anything of importance either. When the night was over, Howard -who was more than a little tipsy- became quite the chatty Cathy while his butler drove you home. It was a good thing you disposed of the listening device before you left by pretending to bump into a waiter so he managed to spill a whole bottle of champagne on you and it.

"Aaand that General, with his proud nose and that… pompous peacocking of his many service commendations… Psshh! Why I had him eating out of my hand when I was done. Serves him right for calling me- me, arrogant!" Howard huffed proudly into the bottle of champagne he had swiped.

"You showed him!" You egged him on.

His butler looking at the two of you with a look that would have been that of disappointment had it not been so stern.

"I did!" Howard shouted proudly before taking another swig. He laughed. "H- he thought he could turn me into a joke because of that break in! Hah! The real joke was that anyone thought I'd be foolish enough to keep prized secrets in an office safe!"

You laughed with him, but your eyes were too sober to completely sell the act.

Howard leaned in close, his chin almost touching your breasts as some champagne spilt onto the seat next to him. "Everyyyyy- hic -everyone knowss-" he stopped, giggled and touched your nose. "Hee hee, 'nose'."

You pretended to playfully swat his had aside.

"What does everyone know?" You tried to bring his train of thought back around.

"What? Oh, yes! Secretsss!" Howard cleared his throat.

"Sir," his butler tried to regain his attention.

"" Howard chortled.

"Sir!" His butler spoke again, only this time with more verve.

"What, Jarvis? What is sooo urgent?" Howard complained.

"I believe this is the madam's stop," he informed Howard in a composed manner, his accent full and posh.

"Already?" Howard's pitch turned high. "And we were having such a graaand time!" How moped.

You gathered your things and gave both men as charming a smile as you could, "But just like the Little Cinder-Girl, I must return to the real world. It's been charming."

You didn't wait for Jarvis to open your door, but you did make sure to put on quite the performance as you fake staggered to your apartment.

As you made your way up the stairs to your flat, you kept running Howard's words through your head:

All the best hiding places aren't hiding places at all.

"What does that mean?" You thought allowed as you entered your apartment.

"What does what mean?" Sally asked from behind her gardening magazine. You were surprised she was still up at this hour. She was most probably waiting up for you.

You thought of making up an excuse to curve her question, but you wondered if she'd actually be of help if you kept things vague enough.

"If someone says: the best hiding places aren't hiding places at all, what would you think?" You asked her as you took your heels off.

"Oh, I love mysteries. Hmmm, let me think. Well, my brother used to hide all his spare change in the ceramic piggy bank we all thought was for decoration on momma's display case. When she caught him takin' money out, she hollered at him for keepin' all that cash to himself while we were skint. He just laughed and said he wasn’t' hidin' nothin'. ‘It's not like I stuffed it in my mattress, Ma!’ he said. He hasn't heard the end of it since." Sally smiled fondly at the memory. "Does that help, Hun?"

You frowned, "Maybe."

You made your way to the bedroom, "Goodnight, Sal."

***

You sat in your room, wracking your brain for answers to Stark's little boast. And then finally, it came to you in the oddest of ways. On your desk, under a pile of papers, magazines and makeup was a tabloid magazine with the title: Stark, Genius on the Rise!

You picked up the magazine to look at the photograph chosen for the spread. Howard was leaning against a half-assembled car, the floor littered with tools and the garage door open to showcase his extravagant house and pool where two women lounged on floats. In front of him was a table full of schematics and blueprints. The quote at the bottom written in yellow italic print: "Most men like to keep their home and business lives separate. I'm not most men, I like to bring my work home with me."

"All the best hiding places--" You looked more closely at his garage, and then a smile crept over your face. "Aren't hiding places at all!"

You glanced over at your alarm clock. The hands telling you it was just past midnight. You had enough time to get to Stark's house, riffle through his things and get back before early morning. Maybe your day wasn't such a loss after all.

***

Getting passed Stark's security measures had been much easier than you anticipated. Actually, the whole thing felt like a breeze for someone with million dollar secrets lying about on his desks. Flashbacks of your failed office break-in swarmed to mind, that snarky note Howard left in his safe was undoubtedly a warning to not underestimate his cunning. You had to stay sharp.

Once you gained access to his garage, you switched on your small flashlight and started snooping through the heaps of uncategorised and disorganised files. You had found some prototype sketches of planes, engines and even the odd light switch amongst files labelled Office Memo. There was even the odd letter or two with Scorned Lover! scribbled on with red ink. This might take longer than you thought.

"Howard, you're filing system is complete chaos..." you whispered aloud.

Then suddenly, the lights came on and a man walked in from behind you.

"And here I was thinking we wouldn't get a chance to see each other so soon after this evening," Howard nursed a cup of tea while in nothing but an open dress robe and boxers. "Lose an earring?" He smirked.

Jarvis stormed in after him in his striped pyjamas and nightcap, holding a bat in his hands. When he saw you he relaxed his spine and let out a grave sigh. "I dare say, Mr Stark, if I had been under the employ of anyone else I might find this baffling."

"That bat isn't going to be of much help to you," you calmly warned him.

"Probably not, no. But I assume the bomb triggered with when the motion sensor went off will." Howard smiled. "It's set to do so if someone doesn't enter the alarm code in the door before you come in."

"Isn't that risky for someone who has to remind themselves of which letter is from a scorned letter and which is an office memo?" You asked.

Jarvis rose his eyebrows, "She has a point."

“Yes the system may have some kinks that need sorting, I suppose…” Howard sipped his tea innocently.

"How?" You asked Howard and not in response to his comment about his security system.

Howard held up a device that looked like a radio signal detector.

"Your listening device." Howard inched closer to you. "I wasn't certain. I suspected, but now I know for sure. And I’m even more certain we have you to blame for that break in a few weeks ago. Maybe even the one at the covert military post a few weeks before that."

"Fuck..."

“Don’t be so hard on yourself,” Howard said as headed towards a liquor cabinet, pouring himself something stronger than tea. He held up the crystal bottle of whiskey at you, you looked away. “Suit yourself.”

“What now?” You asked.

“Now…” He dragged a chair to sit on close to you, “Now, we strike a deal.”

Chapter Text

image

~

The subway was practically a ghost town this early in the morning. The subway car was filled with maybe three people, yourself included.

One man, in work clothes smeared with grease and paint stains, was asleep under his cap a few rows down. The other looked to be nursing a hangover. Oh, how you wished a splitting headache had been the worst of your worries. You shifted in your borrowed clothes, too tight to get comfortable.  Your hand rested protectively over the metal briefcase as you rewound your memories, trying to figure out if there was some alternative you had failed to see.

~8 Hours Earlier~

“What now?” You asked.

“Now…” He dragged a chair to sit on close to you, “Now, we strike a deal.”

Howard sat down, taking a slow swig of his amber liquid. Savouring the moment with a smug smile on his face and a suggestive eyebrow arched up with childish humour. "Jarvis, if you would be so kind as you restrain our guest."

You sucked in air through your teeth in distaste. Howard chuckled as Jarvis restrained your hands to the armrests of a chair.

"Wouldn't want you getting any ideas now." Howard winked.

This was one hell of a fucked up situation you had gotten yourself into. A part of you couldn't help but wonder if you would have been so careless if you hadn't been toying with the idea of a life beyond being the spy. A life spent beside Bucky.  

You balled your fists up in anger. Not at Howard, or Jarvis or even the situation, but at yourself.

"Is this how it's going to be?" Howard cocked his head to the side in inquiry. "A Mexican standoff with silence in place of pearlescent revolvers?"

"You know, Howie, your jokes are kind of stale when you aren't knee deep in a champagne bottle," you bit back harshly.

"Oh, you know how I love a woman with a fiery spirit!" He hollered with delight. He was enjoying this immensely. Jarvis sighed behind him, not as enamoured with his employer’s behaviour.

"For someone who admires fiery women, you sure do spend a lot of time with a ditzy broad on your arm," you rebutted.

"Please!" Howard snorted holding up two fingers. "Two minimum."

"Sir, if I may," Jarvis stuck his head up. "You are supposed to be intimidating the woman who just tried to break and enter into your residence, not trade snarky commentary."

"Ah, quite right." Howard looked at his watch. His face scrunching as he seemed to be counting down the minutes. "Jarvis, would you be a good sport and see to our guests at the front gate?"

"Guests?" You and Jarvis asked simultaneously.

"The security system wasn't just rigged with an explosive device, it was also set to alert someone of the break-in. Last time we tested it his response time was under 12 minutes. It seems his time has improved significantly," He finished his drink.

Jarvis punched in the unlock code, deactivating Howard's outrageous security protocols. You waited, ill at ease for whatever was about to unfold.

You smelt the scent of cigar smoke and heard the grumbles of gruff military gusto before you even saw the man enter the room. He was taller than Howard you figured, but probably an inch or two shorter than Jarvis. His giant cigar trailing ash onto the floor. His beige and tan clothing screamed monotone personality. You imagined he probably ate his dinner with the military allocated regiment cutlery and plates.

"Howard, if you’re so called ingenious security system woke me up in the middle of the night for--" He was stopped from finishing his sentence when he saw you tied to a chair. "For Christ’s sake, she's not even properly restrained!"

"Ah, Chester!" Howard exclaimed with excitement.

"That's Colonel Phillips to you. And for the love of god, can you explain to me what it is exactly I'm looking at here?" His accent was thick and prickly sounding to your ears, but maybe that was because you spent most of your time in Brooklyn.

"Isn't it obvious Chest--" Howard's words were deterred by the Colonel's grim stare, "-Uh, Colonel Phillips. I caught a burglar!"

Colonel Phillips sighed, "Yes, congratulations Howard. You have successfully wasted my time with something that is clearly a police issue." The Colonel turned to leave.

"Yes, but how many cat burglars make a habit of breaking into your highly secret and secure military locations and make off with invaluable research, all without leaving so much as a hair strand behind?"

The Colonel stopped in his tracks and turned to Howard who had crossed his legs and plastered a smug expression on his face.

The Colonel walked over to you, eyeing you from head to toe- seeming unimpressed with what he saw. "You're telling me that she is the spy who managed to take out five highly trained operatives?" He asked bewildered, as if all this was some great, big prank.

You took offence in his expression, anger taking root in your stomach at his insinuation.

"Six," you said sharply, looking the intimidating man square in the eye.

The Colonel looked at you for a long moment and then chuckled.

"I believe I may have found us an answer to that mole problem," Howard said.

"Mole?" You subconsciously reiterated in a low whisper.

"Howard, you've got a big brain, but that doesn't mean you always use it correctly. What makes you think she's going to agree to do anything for us instead of running off and tattling to whoever she works for? Or worse! Shooting you in the back and making off with your research?" The stone-faced man howled with annoyance.

"Because, Helen here isn't Hydra," Howard said smugly, standing to pour himself a drink. He held up his newly refilled glass in question to the Colonel.

"It's 3am Howard. I'll have coffee, black, two sugars."

Jarvis made his way out of the room.

"Ah to hell with it! Make it Irish while you're at it!" The Colonel shouted after Jarvis.

"Right," the posh British man took his order.

"How do you know she isn't Hydra?" Colonel Phillips put out his cigar on an ashtray nearby.

"At least I assume your allegiance isn't solely to Hydra." Howard directed the statement to you. Your eyes darted about, trying to catch onto Howard's train of thought.

"The listening device..." You figured it out before Howard got a chance to reply to the Colonel.

Howard pointed at you as though you'd just scored point guard, "Bingo! Girl catches on fast. If you were Hydra, like Liza- or was it, Lisa? Maybe Edith... Oh, what is her name again?" Howard looked at the Colonel.

"Katherine Meyers, sir." Jarvis chimed in as he handed the Colonel his coffee. Howard clicked his fingers just then.

"Kathrine, that's right!"

After a brief pause, Howard noticed the Colonel scowling at him.

"What? He's my butler. Jarvis is basically my very own pocket diary. To be perfectly honest I'm lucky he was the one to open the garage doors. I forgot the combination. Things could've gotten messy real quick." Howard mouthed the sound of an explosion as his hands mimicked the dispersal pattern of a bomb. "Anyway, as I was saying. If you were Hydra you wouldn't have gotten rid of your own listening device. Unless you didn't want someone else being able to listen in."

You couldn't believe they knew about Kathrine, you didn't know she was Hydra until she ambushed you in the bathroom at work about spying on Howard.

"You know she's Hydra?" You asked the men in the room.

Howard set his drink down, "It's easier to keep an eye on potential threats when you keep them close. We used the Gala as a setup. All those higher-ups in one place? Perfect bait. We had hoped this… Kathy Meyers would show up and lead the good Colonel's men to the rest of her cohorts. Imagine my surprise when she was a no-show and instead, it was you -my date- that set off my bug sniffer. And now here we are. All acquainted." Howard gave both you and the Colonel a shit-eating grin.

The Colonel pulled a chair up close to you, "So if you aren't Hydra, who do you work for?"

"I never said I didn't work for Hydra..." You said.

"Do you make it a habit of destroying invaluable devices?" Howard asked sarcastically as he pulled out the listening device Katherine gave you from the pockets of his robe. "The trash is always the first place people look darlin'."

You bit your inner cheek. "Fine, you're right. My interests may not entirely align with Hydra's but the organisation I work for wants the same thing they do."

"Dr Erskine's serum." Colonel Phillips said. "That still leaves a long list of potential organisations."

"It does indeed," you played coy.

After what felt like hours of the Colonel interrogating you about who you worked for and what your real name was, you saw Howard barely keep it together as he grew antsier by the minute.

"You don't have to tell me who you work for. Lord knows there’s almost more than one way to get the truth out of people. I could simply let it slip through monitored channels that you've secretly been working for us and then all I have to do is wait and see who comes for your head..." Colonel Phillips threatened.

"Who she works for is of no consequence!" Howard's tone showed he was getting bored with this runaround. He leaned into your chair, hands over the armrests. "Look, we've got you dead to rights. So either you work with us or you face a much harsher reality than the one where you're bound to a chair in a millionaire’s garage."

You leaned closer to Howard, glaring at him. He was right, at best they' throw you in a prison cell where you'd never see daylight, but eventually, someone would link you to Bucky and that caused a shiver to run up your spine.

On the other hand, even if you did manage to get out of this situation, your cover was blown and the Red Room wasn't known for being very forgiving when it came to failed missions. Making a run for it wasn't wise either. There was only one playable card left.

Your head tilted to the floor as your back slumped against the chair. You let out a thoughtful breath of air, "What is it you need from me?"

Hoard sighed with relief, "It's simple. We just need you to lead us to the wherever Hydra has set up shop here."

"And what do I get out of this deal?" You brought your head back up from the floor.

"Your life," the Colonel said. "You get to keep breathing… somewhere else. Preferably back from wherever it is you come from."

"My window?"

"You've got 48 hours to figure out where Katherine and her companions are holed up and then we put you on a plane to wherever it is you want to go." Colonel Phillips said.

You tried to stay focused on everything, to let the gravity of your situation finally sink in, but all you could think about was Bucky and Steve and Sal, and how you'd never see them again.

"The plan?" Your vocal cords began to tremble.

Howard darted over to his desk, opened a drawer, punched in a code that beeped loudly and came back with a metal briefcase.

“This," he opened it to reveal several vials of glowing blue liquid.

You were shocked by his proposal, "The serum?"

"Not quite," the Colonel corrected you.

"It's actually a highly explosive chemical. The glow is just phosphorescent dye particles." Howard informed you.

"It's a bomb..." you said dolefully.

"Yes," the Colonel answered flatly.

Things were getting more complicated by the second. You clenched and unclenched your hands into fists and ground your teeth together, "Fuck."

"This is still your best shot," Howard reminded you.

Jarvis butted into the conversation when he noticed how distant your expression was, “Perhaps we should let the lady think on this, it can’t possibly be an eas—“

"I need one thing in return," your head shot up, determination creasing your forehead.

"Bargaining now?" Colonel Phillips seemed amused.

Howard, on the other hand, looked at you sympathetically, "What?"

"Dr Erskine's lab notes."

Colonel Phillips stood from his chair abruptly, almost knocking it over. "Out of the question!"

You were quick to reason, "I imagine whatever he's been working on hasn't been a success so far, otherwise, the tide would have shifted in your favour a long time ago. Anything with the ability to change the world takes time. Mistakes, failed experiments. If you give me those notes, I'd have an easier time proving that that briefcase is indeed filled with samples of the serum."

They mulled over your words. The Colonel looking less likely to agree. Howard, however, was more open to the idea.

"Deal!" He said.

"Are you out of your mind Stark? You do not have the authority to give out classified information!" The Colonel shouted angrily.

"If she really did steal the defective serum months ago, her organisation is already onto our project. Giving her access to experimental notes from our failed experiments isn't going to change the fact that other people are onto your little project. If anything, it will make them spend months looking over useless data, giving us more time to perfect our findings!" Howard's voice rose an octave after each word until he was almost shouting.

Colonel Phillips grumbled and then conceded, "Fine, but this is on your head Stark!"

Howard walked over to you with a pair of scissors and undid your restraints. When you stood, Howard offered you his hand and said empathetically, "Partners?"

You gawked at him for a moment and then returned his handshake, "The enemy of my enemy..."

Howard's jaw dropped momentarily, then morphed into a smile when he noticed you weren't as stone-faced as before.

When he unclasped your hand, you rubbed the would-be bruises from your wrists, "Seeing as how it's day time, I do need one other favour?"

"What's that? Coffee?" Colonel Phillips snorted as he downed the rest of his hot drink.

You squinted your eyes at him. He had a gift for getting under your skin, much like Yelena. "No. First, how to set off this device and second, a change of clothes." Your arms fell to your sides.

"Ah yes, I suspect seeing a woman walking around in black tactical gear may be a tad bit suspicious," Jarvis said light-heartedly. "I may have a solution for that."

"Please, none of Howard's mistress’s clothes!" You pleaded after him, but he had already left.

***

After you got off the subway, you made a quick pit stop at a phone booth next to your street block.

The phone booth was small and claustrophobic, if not for the windows you'd probably feel a little cramped. You picked up the receiver and spun the number rotary. After a dial tone, an operator's voice spoke out.

"Operator, how can I connect your call?"

"Steak House Restaurant, please." You answered.

"Please hold."

The dial tone clicked a few times and then reconnected to another line.

"Steak House Restaurant," Yelena's accentless voice answered.

Your eyes lingered on the briefcase and then at your reflection in the glass, "I'd like to place an order."

"Will that be the regular?"

You sighed, "No, House Special."

"Your order will be delivered to you in the next hour. Thank you for calling."

The phone line cut and you hung up the receiver. It was then that you noticed your hand was shaking. You balled it into a fist and clamped down with pressure using your other hand.

Your fist connected to the glass walls of the phone booth, creating a spider-web crack. You could feel the skin break apart from the force of the punch. Blood trickled down the crack, you untied the scarf around your neck and wiped it away before wrapping it around your knuckles before heading for your apartment.

"Get it together, Y/N!" You tutted at yourself, your accent eerily similar to Yelena's just then.

Your keys rattled against the lock, but before you could turn the lock, the door swung wide open- your keys still lodged in the lock. Sally glared at you with the most menacing expression you'd ever seen her wear. It was worse than that one time Annie borrowed her favourite lipstick and lost it.

"Where the hell have you been?" Sally demanded with a quiver in her voice.

Your eyes opened wide, "Sal- What do you mean? I- I-"

Sally cut you off as she walked towards the kitchen to pour herself a cup of coffee. From the state of her hair and dark circles under her eyes, you guessed she hadn't slept most of the night. You grabbed your keys and shut the door. Placing the briefcase on the floor.

Sally eyed you, paying attention to the briefcase, your clothes and your bandaged knuckles.

With all the stress and turbulence of your day, it was hard for you to come up with a convincing excuse to explain everything. "I had an early work emer--"

"Don't even try to lie to me." Sally wrapped her polished nails around her mug. "I know you didn't sleep here. Bucky called the apartment, said you left his place in a weird mood. He wanted to check up on you since you didn’t call after your… whatever it was you were doing with Howard Stark. I went to check on you and your bed was empty. No note, nothin'! I was worried. And then you show up in strange clothes… And is that blood on your knuckles?"

You opened your mouth but nothing came out.

“You’ve always been secretive, but usually you’re better at disappearing.” Sally sighed, raking her hands through her hair. "What is going on Elle?"

You walked over to Sally and placed your good hand over hers, "It's- It's complicated. I- I promise I'll explain. Just not right now."

Sally was about to protest when there was a knock at the door. Sally's eyebrow rose in suspicion.

"It's for me," you reassured as you walked over to open the door. Sally just lifted her arms in exasperation. The man at the door was wearing a delivery outfit for the Steak House Restaurant. He handed you a package in a brown paper bag. In the process, his sleeve stretched over his wrists to reveal the watch of the man who had collected the serum sample from you months ago.

"How much do I owe you?" You asked.

He simply ducked his head and tipped his hat, "On the house." His voice was gruff and unwelcoming, a hint of an accent still present around his vowels.

You closed the door and turned around to see Sally looking at you completely baffled.

"You spend all night god knows where, say you can’t explain and then order take out? I didn't even know they delivered this early. I- I-" Sally tired herself out. "I'm done being so angry in the mornin'. We have work in an hour."

"Actually, Sal…"

She turned to you slowly from the doorway of her bedroom.

"Let me guess, you're not coming into work today, are you?" You nodded your head sluggishly and Sally just let out a sigh. "I'll cover for you, but when I get back we'll talk."

Your eyes lingered on the floor for a little too long before you said dryly, "Sure, when you get back."

Something in her eyes told you she didn't believe you. You didn't believe yourself.

As soon as Sally was out of the apartment, you tore open the package only to reveal an empty box with a single note that read: Trainyard. One hour.

***

After you finished filling Yelena in on your current predicament, the two of you had been stagnating in the hollow silence that filled the dark train car for almost ten minutes. Yelena was on her second cigarette, her red nails drumming an irate tune into the metal wall she was leaning against.

Once she put out her cigarette with her heel, she turned to you with an unreadable expression.

"It seems we have outstayed our welcome, tovarishch." She chuckled venomously as she looked you up and down. "And it seemed I overestimated your abilities."

You were getting tired of people giving you that same look so many times in the span of a day.

"I was doing what you ordered me to do. To find out what Stark was working on!" You barked to your defence.

Yelena tutted, "You did so carelessly! All because you stopped thinking objectively. I warned you, Y/N! I warned you of the consequences of getting entangled in our profession!"

That had been the first time Yelena had called you by your name in what felt like years. What surprised you the most was that her words held no animosity or anger, she almost sounded sad.

Yelena raked her nails through her perfect blonde curls, "It can't be helped. Do what they require of you. We'll plan an extraction. Hopefully, when you set off this bomb of theirs we can use the confusion to smuggle you out using the commotion."

You stood up from the cold steel chair to face her at level height, but Yelena kept her eyes fixed on a rusted bolt on the hinges.

"There's one more thing," You opened the briefcase carefully and pulled out the research notes Howard had given you. "I convinced them to hand over their notes. They aren't recent, but it’s more than we've managed to acquire in the last few months."

Yelena held out her slender long fingers expectantly.

You snatched the file away and held it closer to your chest, "I want to bargain it for my freedom."

Yelena looked at you with her mouth pried open slightly, "You're still nursing this moronic notion."

"Wanting to be free and live a normal life isn't moronic, Yelena." You whispered. "I'm tired of this life."

"What's the point? After this, you won’t be able to just jump back into your old life. You can't stay here tovarishch. And once you carry out this mission, rest assured Hydra will hunt you down."

"Only if someone talks."

"We will hunt you down." She assured you.

"Not if you tell them I died in the explosion."

"Why would I do such a thing?"

"Because Yelena… we were like family once. We were all we had for a long time. As much as I dislike what you turned into, I don't hate you. And I know you aren't as cold as you'd have people believe."

Yelena stayed silent for a moment and you held your breath, "Even if I did what you're asking, you must know you can't be with him. Your precious Bucky. And now that he's enlisted, he's our enemy. Your enemy."

Your eyes grew wide, "How did you- It doesn't matter. I just want out."

Yelena nodded, "Alright, tovarishch. I just want you to remember, whatever happens, this was your choice."

You handed Yelena the file and walked away, not once turning back.

***

Yelena sat by her apartment window, letting the salty air wash over her. She had been staring at her phone for almost an hour, unsure of how to proceed. Y/N had seemed so afraid in the train car, she may have hidden it well, but she could tell her old friend was hanging by a thread.

Before the Red Room, she was all Yelena had. They were two orphans turned pickpockets who survived by trusting each other. There was a time she considered them sisters. But everything changed once they were recruited.

Yelena wanted more than to stay at the bottom, to be a pawn with no power or authority. To her, being a grunt was worse than being a street rat. At least when she was living on the streets she still had a shred of independence. Climbing up the ladder had afforded her many enemies, but she couldn't understand why Y/N wasn't as adamant to leave her posting as someone’s boot lackey. It infuriated her that she didn't strive to regain some shred of power. That was all in the past now and Yelena had a hard decision to make.

Yelena picked up her secure line and dialled a number. After a few rings, the line picked up.

"Da," a stern-sounding woman's voice answered in their mother tongue.

Yelena spoke freely in Russian, "It's agent Y/N."

"Speak."

"She managed to get the files on the secret project," Yelena looked down at the open file, papers watermarked with 'S.S.R'. Her eyes were fixed on a passage where Erskine talked about the human experiments that took place at one of Schmidt's secret bases.

"Good work, Yelena."

Silence became her friend again as her mind was torn in two.

"If that is all agent--"

"There is something else…"

"What is it?"

"Y/N, she is planning on betraying us."

The woman let out a hefty sigh, "Then eliminate her."

"Wait!" She said quickly. When she composed herself she spoke again with a calmer tone, "There may be a way she could still be of use to us."

The woman on the other end of the line didn't say anything, Yelena took a deep breath before telling her handler her plan.

Chapter Text

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You had spent most of the morning walking around the streets of Brooklyn just taking in the scenes that unfolded before you. Your heartfelt heavy and your nerves wouldn't stop being on edge. The briefcase had all but become a part of you considering how tightly your fingers clutched the handle. There was so much that could go wrong and if it did, that meant so much would go unsaid.

You should have been focused on the mission at hand, but your brain was swarmed with the thoughts and memories about your life for the past two years. Bucky, Sally, Hal, Annie. Hell, even Howard and your flirtatious exchanges. You imagined, if, under different circumstances, you would have probably been friends.

You stared at your reflection contorting from one window to the next along the cobbled street. Your disappointment in yourself was almost as paralysing as the memory of Sally's disapproving face. You had never seen her look at you that way before, it was practically etched into your corneas. It hurt you how your sweet, overprotective best friend, who had turned into one of the most important people in your life, would be lost to you come tomorrow morning.

And what of Bucky? Soft, blue-eyed Bucky? The man who had been nothing but a stranger sitting in your booth who had turned into the man that thawed out your cold heart, numbed by years of living lie after lie. The thought of being away from him, apart from him burned you. Come to think of it, you noticed just how raw your eyes felt for most of the day simply because you had been fighting against the tears that threatened to fall.

Suddenly, an idea came over you as you walked past the post office. You stopped, considered how dumb your idea was, but decided after everything, one more fuck up wouldn't be the end of the world. You walked into the post office determined to at least try and right one wrong.

*** 

A half hour later, when the sun was almost at mid-point, you walked over to the phone booth close to your apartment and dialled for Katherine's desk at Stark Industries.

"Kathy Meyers. Secretarial pool. Stark Industries. How may I help you?" She answered sweetly.

"Kathy, it's Elle." You said. "I have something for you and our mutual friends that would interest you."

Kathy cleared her throat, "Why don't you just go through the proper channels?"

"I want a meet."

"That's impossible right now."

"Then make it possible. Post Office. One hour." You hung up the receiver before she could object any further.

You walked into your apartment, opened the briefcase and stashed one of the bright blue vials into your coat pocket before hiding the briefcase behind a vent in the building’s basement.

You had arrived early at the meet point, carrying cheap dinner coffee in a paper cup, sitting at a bench next to a row of metal post boxes. At precisely an hour past you noticed Kathy, dressed in a red coat and matching hat, walk over to you.

"Kathy," you greeted her smugly.

"You've got some nerve, calling on an unsecure line and making demands. What could you possibly have that is worth all this trouble?"

"You pulled out the blue vial from your coat. Kathy's jaw dropped.

"Is that?"

"The serum. Yes. And I have more. But I'll only give it to you once I get an audience with who is really running things over here."

Kathy clicked her tongue and folded her arms across her chest, "This is unheard of."

"There's always a first for everything Kathy." You said her name condescendingly, she picked up on your aggressive tone.

Kathy smirked, "Fine. Meet here. Eight hours from now."

Your gut felt uneasy, her compliance happening a bit too easily. You didn't even need to strong arm her. Your logical brain summed it up to the fact that whatever this serum was, it held great power over everyone.

"Eight hours," you agreed.

With that Kathy made her way to a post office clerk and posted a letter -it was probably her cover story for being here during work hours.

Eight hours. You had eight hours to kill before everything was supposed to go down. After you called Howard and informed him of the plan to meet up with Kathy, you made your way to Bucky's flat.

***

As you walked up to his steps, you noticed Bucky was already outside holding a cup of coffee and dressed in brown pants and a white shirt. He looked up at you as you approached, but unlike the warm gaze he had held yesterday, his eyes seemed cold. His lips fixed in a grim line.

"Bucky?" You said softly.

"Hey, Elle..." He said monotonously. His grip on his mug tightening to mask what you could only imagine to be anger. "I'm guessing Sal told you I called?"

It wasn't a question, more of a statement. Instantly, you knew what he had been thinking.

You took a step forward, "Buck--"

Bucky moved his head to the side, away from you, the muscles of his jaw clamping down. "Were you with him?"

"I…" You closed your eyes, fatigued from having to lie to the people you loved constantly. "Yes."

Bucky's head drooped, he stared into his reflexion in the black liquid rippling about, "Were you two… together?"

You rushed to his side when you heard the crack in his voice, kneeling beside him to force him to look at you. "Buck, look at me. Please."

You brought your hands to his face slowly, afraid he'd pull away, but he stayed perfectly still. His eyes closing with sadness when he felt your hands on his cheek. You tilted his head up and when he opened his eyes, they looked glassy like mirrors of the ocean.

"But it's not what you think."

He let out a single chuckle, "And what is it I think?"

"I know things haven't been perfect, but trust me when I tell you nothing happened. I meant what I said," You searched his eyes. "My heart belongs to you, always."

"And you know who owns mine."

You let out a relieved breath, "So you believe me?"

"I do… I just don't know if that's enough anymore."

A weak smile appeared on his tired looking face. Bucky set his cup on the step below him and took your hands in his, kissing the inside of your palm for a long moment.

Bucky removed his lips from your palm, "It hurts me, you know. I can see you're keeping things from me, I just… I hoped that with time you'd open up on your own. The excuses, the abrupt exits, the fact you never talk about your family or the future. For so long it felt like you were instinctively keeping me at arm’s length. I tried to convince myself that I couldn't rush you. I thought that with time…" Bucky let out a weary breath. "You know I love you, right?"

"I do."

"Then why won't you tell me what is really going on Elle?"

"Y/N."

"What?"

"It's my name… My-" You sighed, letting your hands slip from his. "My middle name."

Bucky cocked his head to the side. You were the one to look away this time.

"I just wanted you to know in case- Never mind."

"In case of what?" Bucky looked worried. "Elle, something's been eating at you for some time now. Since before we broke up. I'm pretty sure that whatever it is, it's the reason you really ended things. I just… I want to be there for you. If it's dangerous, I sure as hell want to be able to protect you."

You laughed sadly.

Bucky caressed the side of your cheek, "What is it?"

Your eyes were holding back tears, "All this time, I thought that by keeping you at a distance, I was protecting you. I thought I was convincing too. Turns out I was just hurting you by keeping you in the dark."

"Hey," Bucky's arms wrapped around you, letting his strength envelope you.

"The reason I was with Howard all night is…" you took a moment and grimaced at the fact you weren't ready to tell him everything just yet. It was still too dangerous and everything was still chaotic. "He needed a favour. He considers me a friend, and despite his eccentric behaviour and shameless flirt act, he doesn't have many of those. I- I can't tell you more than that. Just… not yet anyway. I didn't mean to cause you worry."  

Whether Bucky believed you or not, you couldn't tell, but you felt his shoulders relax under your touch. "No one's perfect. Least of all you and me. We all make mistakes. I mean I'm an idiot for constantly being jealous of you and Howard."

You chuckled lifelessly at that, "Howard is a relentless flirt."

"It's just, I've never known anyone like you. The thought of losing you, it frightens me. Makes it hard for me to think straight. After we ended things, I was miserable. Steve barely managed to get me off the couch. Everything felt numb." Bucky shifted so his forehead was touching yours. "When I saw you at the speakeasy, all dressed up but with a hint of sadness in your eyes, the first thing I wanted to do was make you smile. Because when you smile, the world makes sense."

You smiled at his words, feeling your heart swell magnificently.

"Look at that, the world just got a little bit brighter," he said coaxing a full laugh from your lips. You felt your tears begin to dry away when Bucky kissed you softly. It wasn't a hungry kiss full of heat and passion, it wasn't even like your softer more intimate kisses. This one was a dizzying mix of sadness and relief. It was a kiss that silently screamed: stay!

Could he tell? You wondered to yourself when your kiss broke and Bucky stood, extending his hand for you to join him.

You stood up and let the breeze clear the uncomfortable air that settled between the two of you.

He kept his eyes glued to yours for an intimate second before he whispered, "You're my safe harbour. I want you to know that."

"Let's go somewhere," you blurted out without a second thought. Bucky rose a brow at you but you simply continued with your impossible notion: "Just the two of us. Somewhere quiet. Spend a few days away from everything. And then I promise to tell you everything."

"I can't just leave Elle."

"Why not?" You pressured him.

"You know why."

"Because you enlisted? The world won't end in a few days."

"What about Steve? Or your job?"

"We can bring Steve with!"

"Elle..."

"Bucky!"

He placed his hands on his hips and paced around for a second, "Okay."

"Okay?" Your eyes sparkled.

Bucky ran a hand through his hair and huffed out some breathy laughs, "Okay."

You wrapped your arms around his neck and kissed him deeply, your nerves seemingly drowned out by the feeling of elation Bucky's embrace brought.

Suddenly, abruptly ending the moment, your stomach grumbled angrily from neglect. Bucky's shoulders shook from his laugh that was sound-proofed by you kissed. When you broke apart he laced your fingers and walked you into his flat.

"Come on, I'll make you something to eat."

***

A few hours later, you watched Bucky's sleeping frame beside you. Paying attention to the rise and fall of his bare chest as his face looked blissfully at peace. You ran your hand from his forehead where a strand of hair had stuck to his eyelashes, to his chest where his heart beat strongly against his ribcage.

You loved the thrumming feel of it, it made you feel like you were finally home. Being in this room, it felt like all your worries had sunk to the bottom of the cold, inescapable ocean floors, waiting to be lost to the currents forever. As time trickled by, you grew more and more adamant to leave the room. Finally, when it was an hour till your meet with Kathy, you decided it was time to get dressed and head out. You quietly riffled through his bedside drawer looking for a pen and paper to scribble a note. There was nothing useful except for a stack of letters from a woman who also carried the last name Barnes -you assumed it was one of his sisters- and a box of matches. You laughed at his minimalistic drawer and the odd combination of items then slid out of bed and walked over to the phone where you knew he kept paper and a pen.

You placed the note next to the side of the bed and placed a peck on his lips before running out of the apartment.

When you arrived at the post office you were greeted by Kathy and two men who kept their distance but stood out from the crowd nonetheless.

"Two men?" Your words were snarky.

Kathy giggled almost childlike and interlinked your arms as though you were two gal-pals out on the town, "Those are just the ones you can see, trust me."

She walked you over to a car parked a block away and opened the door, "Shall we?"

You looked around, trying to see if you could spot anyone in the crowd suspicious, perhaps one of the Colonel's men, but everything was oddly normal.

You looked over to Kathy and gave her a forced smile, "Lets."

As the car drove past the endless buildings, Kathy stared at you with a burning intensity.

"Our superior is very excited to meet you, Elle." Her voice was still annoyingly sweet.

You clenched your jaw to keep from saying something unprofessional.

"I must admit, all this is highly unusual," she added. You didn't give her the satisfaction of answering. "Silent type, ey? Good. They always have the best responses when they finally crack."

She laughed at her own words, they struck you as an odd choice of phrase, but you didn't have the luxury to question it. You simply fought against the unsettling feeling in your gut, keeping your eyes fixed out the window as you clutched the briefcase tighter.

Eventually, the car parked in front of an inconspicuous cobblestone street in front of a rare book shop. Kathy opened the door and made her way into the shop, you followed after, your head in a swivel.

The bookshop attendant looked and Kathy with recognition. He nodded and pressed a button hidden under his desk. A secret door lined along the wall of bookshelves popped open. Kathy walked in and you followed tentatively. The corridor was short, leading to a crank elevator that was rusted and groaned when the barrier was pulled up. Soon you were in a basement that smelt of mould and moisture. There was only one door, pressurised and old. It had probably been a bomb shelter before the shops had been built atop. Kathy turned the rotary wheel anticlockwise and opened the door to reveal a spacious room with a table, several chairs, a radio switchboard and a board with a map of the world on it. There were several doors most likely leading to a weapons vault or an emergency exit.

When you realised the room was empty, save for you, Kathy and several men working the switchboard, your blood went cold.

Fuck, fuck, fuck! Your mind was racing.

"What is this? You said you were taking me to your superior!" You reached for your gun hidden on your waistband behind your back. You pointed it at Kathy who still had her back towards you.

She, in turn, began to laugh, "Oh, I'm sorry." She turned to you, not at all stunned you had a gun pulled on her. "Did I forget to mention? When I said my superior was looking forward to meeting you, I never meant they were here. You have to go to them… tovarishch."

Kathy winked and the adrenaline kicked in at the mention of Yelena's nickname for you. Without hesitating, you pulled the trigger. Nothing happened.

You looked at it in confusion, pulling the trigger a second and third time.

"Oh, did someone tamper with your gun? Probably aren't that many people who know your hiding places, huh?" Kathy smirked.

In a blur of motions too quick for you to pick up, Kathy pulled out a gun from her own concealed holster and shot you square in the stomach. A painful shock rippled from the point of impact. You looked down only to see there was no blood or bullet hole. Instead, a tranquillizer had pierced through your skin, making everything nauseatingly unstable. Your body, however, didn't fall limp just yet, it was slowly being taken over by the paralytic.

Kathy walked over and ripped the briefcase from your hands, handing it over to one of her subordinates. "Take this upstairs. Prepare several men to await my instruction when I come up."

"Hail Hydra!" He saluted as he left.

Kathy searched your pockets for the detonator. Once she found it she punched you square in the jaw causing you to lose balance and hit the hard concrete floor like a sack of flour.

"You really thought we wouldn't find out you were a Russian spy?" Kathy tutted as several men picked you off the floor and followed her through some doors. With a stone expression, she set off the detonator and one of the men faltered.

"We have men up there."

Kathy ignored him as though he was protesting about the weather, "Correction. We had men up there. Now people won’t come snooping around for us."

The men placed you in something that was shaped and sized like a coffin before standing aside.

Kathy held the lid open and leaned close to whisper, "Sweet dreams."

Then she closed your eyelids and you heard the lid seal shut with a thunderous echo.

 

~ONE WEEK LATER~

Sally caught sight of Bucky sitting on the steps of his flat, his expression distant as he stared blankly at a letter. The wisps of steam coming off his coffee mug.

Without introducing herself, Sally said softly, "You plannin' on reading that?"

Bucky took in a deep breath, "I haven't decided yet."

Sally sat on the step next to him, "Well, you’re much more patient than I am. As soon as I got mine, I tore it open and read it right there and then, still in my dress robes while the rest of my neighbours collected their mail."

Sally laughed as though it were a treasured memory.

"What did it say?"

"Nothin'… and somehow everythin'. She said if she didn't come back, that her past finally caught up to her and-" Sally's voice grew hoarse. "And that she was sorry, for keepin' things from me… that she did it to protect me and if she couldn't explain things face to face, it was probably for the best because then I would stay safe."

Sally smiled but it didn't reach her eyes, "You know, she even put ticket stubs in the envelope from that day we had that picnic at Sue's Farm."

"She kept them?" Bucky asked. Sally hummed in a yes. "I didn't know that."

"Apparently there was a lot about her life we didn' know about," Sally said bitterly.

The wind made Sally's skin prickle yet she was thankful for it, it kept the heat of her anger in check.

"You know Steve got one too?" Bucky asked, putting the letter beneath his coffee cup, staining it with a slight brown circle.

"No," Sally shook her head, her eyes were fixed on the kids playing down the road. "What did his say?"

"Same as yours pretty much."

"Really?"

"Well, she asked him to keep an eye on me. Make sure I don't get myself in trouble." Bucky chuckled. "She gave him back the pin he gave her for the surprise party we threw."

"I guess, wherever she is, she thought she wouldn't need any reminders of us." Sally slapped her thighs and then stood up, "I should head back. I just came to check on you. I won't lie, I was curious about what your letter said. Still not sure if you're gonna open it?"

Bucky took a sip of his coffee and folded his letter into his back pocket. "It probably says the same as yours."

Sally hummed in thought and then turned back to him, "There is one thing that was odd."

"Hmm?"

"She signed the letter under a different name. Y/N. You know why?"

"She told me it was her middle name."

"Oh… I see," Sally stepped off his porch. "Oh and one last thing. Someone from her family called the apartment."

Bucky's brows knit together, "What did they say?"

He seemed to be holding his breath, hoping whatever it was she was going to say would allow him to breathe again.

"They called to let me know someone was going to collect her stuff… And that-" Sally found it hard to say the rest.

"What is it?" Bucky seemed rattled, taking a step down to be closer to her eye level.

"That the reason she left without an explanation was because… she was already engaged. Apparently, she ran away when things got serious."

Bucky's balled his fist before running it through his hair in frustration, "What did they say exactly?"

Sally sighed, "I don't know why you want to torture yourself like this, but okay. They used fancy words, but what I remember went somethin' like: 'She was being selfish and tried to abandon her responsibilities and her real life, but that reality finally caught up to her and she had to face the fact she had already pledged her life to somethin' greater than one person.'"

"Didn't that sound odd?"

Sally shrugged, "At first, but then I got the letter and they both said similar things."

Sally glanced down at her watched and tutted, "I've gotta go. Hal's hangin' by a thread until we find a replacement for Elle." Sally regretted her choice of words as soon as they came out, but she couldn't take them back. She wondered if she'd ever be strong enough to forgive Elle for cutting herself out of her life without having the decency to hug her goodbye.

"See ya around Sal," Bucky waved goodbye as she made her way down the street.

***

Bucky had a hard time focusing his thoughts. Everywhere he looked, he saw the ghost of Elle in his apartment; eating by his table, sleeping in his bed; wearing his shirt with a blush as she walked out of his bathroom. It was suffocating him how close she was and yet she wasn't anywhere near him. He couldn't even pick up the phone to talk to her, hear her voice -demand answers for her cold goodbye.

He stared at the note still written on his notepad in his bedroom that assured him she'd be back in a few hours. That was a week ago. To be fair, a week could be broken down into hours. Years could too.

Is that what she meant? His thoughts howled at him.

He was angry for the feeling of abandonment she had planted in his core. He had loved her, she said she had loved him back, and then she left him. Twice.

Is she going to storm back into your life after a few months pass again? His inner voice asked with resentment.

In a flash of rage and sadness, he flung his mug at the wall and it shattered into a million pieces. He laughed when he moved to pick up the pieces. This was exactly what he felt like: broken and left alone to pick up the pieces.

He tossed the broken pieces of porcelain in the bin and walked over to his bedroom drawer. He pulled out the letter from his pocket and after a brief moment of doubt, he decided he wasn't ready to open it. Maybe he never would be. So he put it together with all the letters he cherished from his family, all the way at the bottom. His hand moved to close the drawer when his eyes lingered on the matchbox. Hesitantly he picked it up and shook it. A single item rattled inside. He didn't know why he thought it wouldn't still be there.

He pushed the end of the box so it slid open. Inside was a ring with a tiny blue stone fixed on a silver band. It wasn't glamorous and it certainly wasn't of much value, but it had been his mother's ring. She had gifted it to him after his father died, but he had left it with his family when he moved out. The day he had told his mother he wanted the ring for someone special, he had been sure things would end differently between him and Elle. He had sworn never to let her slip from his fingers again.

"You're a damned fool, James Buchanan Barnes," he scolded himself as he shoved the matchbox back in the drawer and closed it. "A damned fool..."

 

~SOMEWHERE IN GERMANY~

"Where do we put her Dr Zola?" A soldier in black gear asked the doctor.

"Ah, I see our guest has finally arrived," his hands graced the cold steel of the coffin-shaped box strapped to a trolley. "Bring her to my lab right away. I have something special planned for this one."

Chapter Text

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~Some Time Later~

"Commencing test number eleven of phase two," Dr Zola spoke into the voice recorder placed on the medical table. His small hands flipped the switch of the device you were strapped into and the hum of electric currents rang in your one good ear- the other eardrum was still healing from weeks prior.

"Ahhhhhh!" Your shrill screams overlapped with the buzzing sound of the electric chair. The air was filled with the smell of burned hair and your mouth tasted like foam. Your vision in one eye was blurred with a red haze from the ruptured blood vessel.

Dr Zola flipped the switch off after your screams dissipated into hoarse shrieks, "The subject’s pain threshold seems to have grown exponentially since her last dose." He signalled for the squirmy man dressed in doctor scrubs to go towards you. In silence, he stalked towards you, hand holding a syringe with a six-inch needle and bent your head down so he could administer the contents of the syringe between the ridges of your spinal cord.

"The twelfth dose has now been administered," Dr Zola spoke out in observation. You swore under your breath at him. He simply turned his head to the side like a dog confused by high pitched sounds.

"And now for the second step," he urged his assisting scientist to begin the second part of the experiment. He walked over after having grabbed a scalpel and pressed it into the muscle between your elbow and wrist on the arm with less scaring and sliced down in a perfectly symmetrical line. The blade separated your flesh in a slow and gruelling manner making you hiss behind your clenched jaw. Blood spilt out and dripped onto the floor letting out wet splashing noises every time blood dripped down. The man placed the scalpel back on the medical table before joining Dr Zola's side with a clipboard and pen while the doctor started his stopwatch.

They watched on edge, their eyes skittering from the stopwatch to your still open wound in anticipation of some change they could catalogue. One minute passed and they jotted down something on their clipboard. Two and their faces grew grimmer. Three and Dr Zola looked almost red with anger. Finally after five minutes passed it was clear nothing profound would happen.

You laughed defiantly before you spit out the blood that had accumulated in your cheek. It splattered close to their shoes making them scowl at you in disgust. "Look at that, I'm still a failed experiment!" Your laughs echoed weakly around the room infuriating the two men.

"Do it," Dr Zola said coldly.

His assistant nodded and flipped the same switch from before, this time with the dial cranked a few volts higher. Electricity burned into your flesh from the metal restraints that only got hotter the longer the current passed through them. Your nails were digging into the tattered leather straps that fastened you to the chair, hundreds of half-moon marks accumulating from all the time spent in this particular torture room.

All of a sudden, Dr Zola's eyes lit up as he stared down at your sliced open arm, "Turn it off!"

The buzzing stopped and the current was held at bay, your body trembling as it tried to reset itself. You had a hard time moving your head, but when you finally got it positioned so you could see your arm, your one good eye went wide and then blinked in quick succession as you tried to make sure you weren't hallucinating. Your wound was healing right before your eyes. Sluggishly and very easy to miss if you didn't stare at it for a long time, but it was indeed healing.

"Ha! Ha! We have had our first breakthrough!" Dr Zola cheered with pride as his assistant walked closer to monitor your arm thoroughly.

"It seems you were right Dr Zola. With a controlled amount of your serum present within a subject's bloodstream, rapid cellular regeneration is possible. Perhaps this could finally unlock the secrets to immortality." The assistant said with a naive smile on his face.

Dr Zola paused for a moment, no longer stewing in his glory, "Yes well, hypothesizing is one thing. We still need to find a way to trigger the healing process without requiring an external electric current to excite the molecules within a body."

"One small step Herr Zola!" The assistant said triumphantly.

Dr Zola ignored the younger scientist as he looked down at his watch with a troubled expression, "Log your findings with the rest of the data. Try and replicate the results with a new subject. I am needed elsewhere, Schmidt has asked me to accompany him as he tours the Austrian weapons factory. You will be in charge of the experiments on this level. Return her to her cell."

The young assistant saluted and hailed. Dr Zola mirrored his actions before fixing his collar and walking out of the room.

***

It had felt like months since Dr Zola left for Austria. Despite his absence, the experiments didn't stop.

Your days all blended together to form one long unending day that repeated over and over like clockwork. For a long time, you had held onto the hope that you'd manage to escape this hellish place, but after four failed attempts you had given up on that dream. Your body wasn't in any physical condition to fight as well anymore, the constant tests and drugs flushed in your system at any given time rendered you useless. All you could do was hold onto your last wits to keep your sanity from snapping. Most nights you'd think about your small Brooklyn apartment or the hideous diner outfit you'd wear to work.

You made it a rule to only think about the harmless things. The little things that wouldn't bring you pain or make you feel even more alone in the dark. That was a privilege reserved for the memories of the people you loved and the sweet torment they brought to your dreams. No matter how each dream began it would always, always, transition into an unstoppable nightmare.

You'd occasionally wake up in a cold sweat after dreaming of better circumstances; going dancing with Sally; lounging on vacation with Bucky; playing board games with Steve. Each time they'd all end the same: with them ripped away from you.

A little scatter of sunlight shone down on your face, alerting you to the fact it was day time. You turned to your side to face the wall marked by number tallies. You had stopped trying to keep track of the days after you spent an unknown number of days in a medically induced coma. You'd figured there wasn't any point.

The sound of banging on your door forced you to stand on jelly legs, eyes still foggy as you swayed from your inner ear being off balance.

"Back against the wall!" A guard shouted.

You did as he said, although it took a little effort to keep your knees from caving beneath you.

The door opened and two guards walked in, one bound your hands behind your back while the other kept the door open. When you were marched out of your room, you noticed the entire base was bathed in red light as several other prisoners were ushered out of their rooms -all looking as worse for wear as you did.

"Wha- What's going on?" You croaked out.

The guard behind you grumbled, refusing to answer your question.

"Prisoner transfer," a strange man said from the adjacent line beside you. He was hobbling on one leg while another prisoner helped him stay upright. His bony back was hunched over to the point you could just make out the needle tracks along the base of his spine. It seemed you had something in common.

Your head bobbed from side to side, making sure none of the guards noticed you before you asked: "How do you know?"

He leaned closer so he could whisper a little louder, "I heard the scientists talking next to my cell. Something happened. They're scared. We're being transported to another facility."

You ducked closer with interest, "Where?"

"Russia."

***

The convoy's journey was long and uncomfortable, the flaps from the tarp covering the trucks did little to keep the biting cold at bay. You and several strangers dressed in the same monochromatic garbs huddled together like a bundle of shivering sticks in a futile attempt to stay warm. The guards didn't bother to post people in the back with you. Most of you posed no threat and there would be no chance of surviving this cold without sight of shelter or civilisation for miles.

The truck took the bumpy road with no finesse at all. Every pothole caused the truck to bounce and jostle you all about. The creaking noise of the chassis bumping against the frozen shock suspension had become as synonymous to your good ear as the incessant ringing that persisted in the other. On multiple occasions, you would accidentally slam your body against the cold metal of the truck. You'd groan in protest since your organs were already sore from all the poking and prodding that had become your routine. The entire ride was grievous, it was like being strapped to a piece of debris amidst a tsunami, so when a loud noise cracked through the silence, filling your vision with a hot white flash and overturning the truck, your only reaction was to brace your body for the coming impact.

Akin to dominoes toppling one after the other, each truck in the convoy behind you suffered similar fates. One was heaved off the ground and turned on its side by a controlled explosion below the front wheels while another swerved out of control from a series of sharp whistling noises that left circular holes atop the hood of the car.

Chaos ensued as your vision was bombarded by flashes of bright lights and explosive flames roaring to life. The sound of gunfire and screams and cries of agony mixed together to form a deafening cacophony of anxiety and fear. Your heart caught in your dry throat as adrenaline shot up in pin prickling spikes across your tender muscled back.

The younger you would have seized this opportunity to hunt for a weapon and make a break for it, but instead of doing exactly what you had been trained to do, you simply cowered in the overturned truck -your hands covering your ears as your molars ground against each other.

Another explosion went off close to the truck. Shrapnel tore through the tarp and planted itself into your thigh and shoulder and back. The multiple screams of pain coming from everyone else in the truck proved you weren't the only one whose body was now acquainted with foreign metal shards.

It wasn't until you felt warm liquid dampen the edge of your trousers that you were forced out of your stupor. Blinking erratically, you tried to sit up and make sure none of your arteries were punctured. To your relief, you realised the blood wasn't yours. But as soon as that revelation sunk in, your blood turned cold all over again as you looked over to the one-legged man before going into shock.

"Fuck! No..." You scurried with shaky hands to his side, your breathing escalating to pants. "Hey, hey…I need you to focus. Hey-" You slapped his cheeks in quick successions. "What's your name?"

"What?" He asked, discombobulated from everything that was happening.

"Your name?" You asked again while tearing cloth from your shirt to act as a tourniquet around his leg.

"H- Hans..." he said with a weak smile.

"Okay Hans, I need you to apply pressure here," you moved his ridged hand towards the spot where blood slithering oozing out. "That's good Hans. Now I need you to stay awake."

You turned to the other scared prisoners, looking for a face that seemed less afraid than the other.

"I need you to keep him talking," you ordered a young woman. She was shaking, but her eyes were more astute than the rest. Despite her quivering lips and blue-tipped fingers, you knew she would oblige.

"O- Okay," she quivered as she knelt beside Hans and tried to hold a conversation.

Hesitantly, you left the confines of the truck and headed to the driver’s seat where you hoped to find a first aid kit. Prying the door open was difficult on account of your weak arms. The door had jammed from a dent caused by the flip. You lifted your leg and leaned against the car door as you pulled the handle until it came loose. You cursed, threw the handle and kicked in the glass window.  One of the shards was large enough for you to catch a glimpse of your reflection by your feet. You had grown accustomed to the reality that being someone's lab rat would leave you with scars that wouldn't heal, but somehow it always shook you to your core when you were reminded of how unfamiliar your hair colour had become. When the shocks first started, you had noticed a few slivers of hair turning silver. Now… now your whole head was the same colour as the snow you were currently standing in. You look almost ghostly. In a way, you felt that was truer than much else.

You kicked the glass away, not wanting to waste any more time lamenting what had become of you, and slinked your arm through the window. Patting down against the corpse of the driver and underside of his seat.

Bang!

Another explosion went off, birthing black smoke around it. You jumped and cut your arm on some jagged glass before taking three short breaths.

"Come on Y/N, you can do this."

You reached back into the car and kept feeling around for something. Your muscles instinctively flinching when a gunshot went off. Finally, after spending far too long in the open, you found something you could use: a lighter and a knife. You grabbed the concealed handgun from the driver's boot for safety.

Walking back you noticed a trail of red spots that undoubtedly belonged to you. You had to compartmentalise. One step at a time. All you could think of was getting Hans to stop bleeding.

"Hans, hey… Look at that, you're still talking," you said.

He half chocked on a faltering laugh, "Once I start talking, you can't- Tsssss! Can't… Ahhh! Get me to stop..."

You began burning the tip of the knife with the lighter, "I'm going to dig the shrapnel out before I cauterise the wound. I need you to talk through the pain."

"Heh, you know… you kind of remind me of my wife. I drove her to grow grey hairs too early too," he said reminiscently.

"Where's your wife now?" You asked as you removed the knife from the flame. He didn't answer.

After some struggling breaths, Hans asked: "You ever married?"

Your eye twitched at his question forcing you to close your eyes for a second. Then you looked up at his searching gaze with a smile that felt too heavy to carry, "Only in my nightmares." You tried to amuse him.

He let out what should have sounded like a laugh but came off as a series of groans and hisses.

Without warning him, you dug the knife into his wound and fished out the piece of shrapnel in one nerve-wracking move. He bit down on a belt the girl beside you had given him as you finished up burning his intrusive cut closed.

Once he stabilised you noticed the gunfire had stopped. The sound of boots crunching in the snow grew louder. You cocked the gun and pointed it with unsteady aim out towards the open snow. The gun seemed to grow heavier as your eyesight kept going in and out of focus. Vertigo set in as the thrumming of your heart resonated in your ears. When the boots stopped in front of you, the gun slipped from our hands. You looked down and noticed you hadn't stopped bleeding, your skin was beginning to pale.

"Shit..." you said groggily.

Your head hit the ground hard, your body half out of the cover of the truck. Above you stood a woman wearing an eyepatch with short blonde hair and a cigarette held between her yellowing teeth.

She knelt beside you, machine gun slung against her chest, and ducked her head to see into the truck better. She gave a sarcastic salute to the group of scared prisoners before saying in fluent Russian: "Welcome to Mother Russia."

She looked down at you again and smiled, "You look like shit, tovarishch..."

A gasp of air left your blueing lips as your eyelids closed shut.

***

The echoes of the events that transpired played like muffled noises coming through weak walls. Eventually, the noises grew more savage- deafening to the point your body jerked at each reverberation of a gunshot or explosion that your mind brought to life in your semi-conscious state. Soon, discombobulated memories began to overlap with each loud bang.

Bang!

"Report."

Bang!

"You make a habit of flirting with waitresses you just met, Mr Tall, Dark and Handsome?"

Bang!

"Only the beautiful ones. Call me Bucky, it's shorter -and that smug mess is Steve,"

Bang!

"You ready, doll?"

Bang…

"You're my safe harbour. I want you to know that."

Bang!

"Sweet dreams."

BANG!

"Gahhh!" You gasped awake, the nape of your neck sticky with sweat. You woke up in a tent, the door flap folded half-open to reveal a dying fire. The horizon breaking with the first glints of a sunrise. Several other tents were pitched up. The smell of coffee, cigarettes and grease was mixed with the cold mountain air. By your bedside was a change of clothes and the same gun you had fished off the dead driver.

***

Yelena had just finished briefing the skeleton mercenary crew about their travel trajectory. They began to pack down their tents after she gave them the last of her money. Her things were already packed so she decided to sit by the dying fire and wait.

Yelena scrunched her nose in disgust. The coffee tasted like piss, but little could be done to correct that. Her yellowing fingertips absentmindedly brushed at her eyepatch. The phantom pain had returned with a vengeance ever since she rescued Y/N from the Hydra convoy. Her stomach grew uneasy as bile crept up to her throat. Regret and anger weighing her down like a stone, drowning her in her own petty sorrows.

Click-

The sound of a guns hammer being pushed back brought a smile to her face.

"I was wondering when you'd wake up, tovarishch..." she took a sip of her piss water and immediately regretted it, but she swallowed it down. “I like the hair."

"Give me. One! Reason..." Y/N struggled to say in a raspy voice.

Yelena flinched at how coarse her former subordinate’s voice had become. Without looking up, Yelena said solemnly, "I can't."

"The fuck kind of excuse is that?" She was seething.

"It isn't."

"Where are the other survivors?"

"We salvaged a vehicle," Yelena looked at her men and shook her head to tell them to stand down. "I sent them off."

"Are you here to take me back?"

"No..."

"I don't believe you!"

"There's nothing to go back to."

The gun in Y/N's hand shook, "Then why come for me?"

"It was always the plan. Once Hydra was through with you, we'd swoop in and bring you home." Yelena lit a cigarette between her bare lips. "And either way, you'd have succeeded in your mission. In place of research, we'd have you."

"You sold me out so I could be a glorified lab rat?"

"You would never have gotten away with it. Faking your death never sticks. Not for long. Your mind has always been limited with thinking of the now. I had to make a tough call that would ensure you lived to see tomorrow." Yelena dusted the snow from her trousers, tossed the remaining coffee on the fire and turned to face Y/N and her loaded gun. "This wasn't a rescue mission. There is no cavalry coming. No one to call."

Y/N hit Yelena square in the jaw with the butt of her gun. Yelena saw the blow coming but chose to let it stick. She chuckled lifelessly after spitting out droplets of blood.

"What of the Red Room?"

"As far as they're concerned, once we lost the war you were declared KIA. It's just me now. I got Intel of the convoy, I took a chance."

"Am I supposed to thank you?" Y/N squinted her eye, the other suffered too much trauma to do more than twitch. "You sold me out! You let them take me… You let them experiment on me for months!" Her voice cracked as a tear ran down her cheek.

"Months?" Yelena asked with confusion. "Tovarishch, what year do you think it is?"

Y/N stumbled backwards, "Wh- What? It's… It's 1942… Maybe '43."

Yelena's eye grew wide, "Tovarishch… it's 1947."

"N- No. No, no, no! No. It can't be..." Y/N's breathing became frantic, the gun rattling in her hand. "I kept count. I- I couldn't have been in that coma longer than a week! I- I- I--!"

Yelena saw the trademarks of a panic attack about to ensue and took a chance and slapped Y/N across the face. The lack of warning caused her to fire off a shot from her gun. Yelena was lucky she had already moved out of her sights, but then another gunshot sounded out and one of her men fell into the snow, red staining the white.

Everyone ducked. One of her men examined the bullet hole.

"Soviet slug, no rifling!" He shouted.

Fear soaked Yelena's bloodstream, "He found us..."

"Who found you?" Y/N asked.

Yelena turned to look Y/N in the eye, "Listen to me tovarishch. We don't have time. Here-" She handed her a folded map stuffed with several papers. "Co-ordinates to a safe house half a day’s walk from here. Papers to get you on a boat. There's a village close by, a man rents sledge dogs. He knows you're coming." Yelena signalled for her men to assume defensive positions.

"Why are you doing all this?" Y/N asked.

A sad smile crossed Yelena's face, "You were right to want more. To have that moronic idea of freedom. I- I lost everything. You are all that's left. My one good act."

"This doesn't make up for what you did."

Yelena's smile grew wider, "Nothing can ever make up for the things I've done."

Another sniper shot thundered through the mountains taking another one of her men.

Y/N froze at the sound. When she regained her composure she looked at Yelena with a baffled expression, "What happened?"

Yelena's hand returned to her eyepatch for a brief second, "I flew too close to the sun. Now go!"

Y/N shared a prolonged moment with Yelena in silence. In that sacred space, they had said everything they needed to in order to gain closure without uttering a word. Somehow they both knew once it was over, they would be right back to where they were, scrambling to give each other the catharsis they sought after.

Y/N was the first to break eye contact, lifting her weary body up so she could make a break for the cover of the woods. This was Yelena's last chance to say something.

"Y/N!" Yelena forced her to look behind. "Promise me one thing. Leave it all behind. Everything. The past… it will only bring you pain."

"I can't do that…"Y/N looked at the sun breaking through the dusk. “Pain is all I have left." And then she was gone.

***

Yelena lay on the cold ground, blood pooling around her as the sound of her last man dying was snuffed out by someone’s boot.

Paralysed from the waist down, her eyes were glued to the white clouds dancing about. One, in particular, looked like a rabbit. It reminded her of Y/N's white hair. Another reminder of her failures.

"Ahhh, there it is," she swallowed her own blood with a humorous chuckle as she felt that feeling from before return a thousandfold. "I was almost worried I'd gotten rid of that particular taste of self-loathing."

Out of her peripheral, a masked individual clad in black knelt by her side. His metal arm refracting harsh rays of sunlight in her eye. "Where is the girl?"

Yelena was borderline delusional from all the blood loss and frostbite, "The little rabbit?" She cackled. "Why, down the rabbit hole, of course!"

The man brought his metal arm to her throat, pressure squeezing at her oesophagus making her gasp for air. "No matter. You were the target."

Then he snapped her neck like a twig.

Chapter Text

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~Brooklyn~

image

You looked out the window overlooking a garden filled by yellow roses while a cup of tea cooled between your palms. Your reflection looking back at you with a blank expression, your hair still as white as snow. The steam reaching up to tickle your nose with the notes of chamomile and peppermint.

"How're the kids?" You asked the woman sat next to you. Her face framed by glasses that looked alien against her heart-shaped face. Grey hairs growing in number at a more frequent pace.

"Jack's finally got a job," she sounded thankful. "And Ellie just got accepted to Brown."

You smiled warmly, "I told you he'd land on his feet."

"About god damn time, that kid nearly drove me up the wall."

You tutted, "Remember what the doctor said about minding that temper, it's not good for your blood pressure Sal."

"Keepin' my blood pressure in check is Hal's job," she said with a little sass as her thumb rubbed against her wedding ring. "You going somewhere?"

"Why'd you ask?"

"You only come over before you disappear for a while."

You chuckled, "Paris. Got a new job. Protective detail."

Sally looked out the window wistfully, her age showing clear as day, "Hal always promised we'd go to Paris for our honeymoon."

You turned to your old friend and nudged her with your elbow, "If you promise to keep your blood pressure in check, I'll take you someday."

"Someday for you isn't the same for me," Sally noted, looking at your reflection thoughtfully. "Hard to believe we were once the same age."

You stood from the chair and put on your bomber jacket, "We still are."

Sally took your cup to the sink, "Yes, you just discovered the secret to eternal youth. Good thing Annie isn't with us no more, or else she'd lock you in her basement till you told her your secret, god rest her soul."

You laughed half-heartedly. You placed a kiss on her temple before grabbing your motorcycle keys, "Try not to be too hard of Jack while I'm gone. Oh, and… uh, give Hal my best!"

"Will do, hun! Oh and Y/N!" She walked over to you and handed you a folded piece of photo paper. "I got Ellie to help me figure out how to use one of them copiers. It's a little darker than the original but..."

You looked down at the last photo you'd ever taken. Early 1942; you, Sally, Hal, Bucky, Steve and Annie stood under a going away banner that read: ‘Good Luck At Your New Job!!’

"Two exclamation marks..." you mused lightly.

You left Sally's house and slid your helmet over your head.

***

The cryo-chamber unhooked with a metallic hiss, frost smoking out like fog as the cylindrical containment was lifted up. The hydraulics of the levers arm let out a groan of air. Yellow light bathing the room.

"Ghaaaaahh!" The Winter Soldier screamed in agony as the machine fastened over his right eye flashed blinding streaks of white light into his corneas.

"Zhelaniye," a man dressed in a decorated military uniform read out from a red leather-bound book -most likely a Major.

Longing

The screams persisted as a few more flashes of white light flickered.

"Rzhavyy."

Rusted

The screaming stopped.

"Semnadtsat’."

Seventeen

The machine gave off an electrical whizz as it dismantled away from the metal armed soldier's face. His breathing was raged, animalistic. His jaw still shut tight from the aftershocks of pain but it was his eyes that unsettled the most, seething with unbridled rage.

The Major continued reading out the words with no care for the soldier's disposition, "Rassvet. Pech’. Devyat. Dobroserdechnyy. Vozvrashcheniye na rodinu. Odin. Gruzovoy vagon."

Daybreak. Furnace. Nine. Benign. Homecoming. One. Freight car.

The soldier in the chair had steadied his breathing now. Each breath calm, composed, sinister.

"Dobroye utro, Soldat." The Major said monotonously, slamming the red book shut.

Good morning, Soldier.

The soldier kept his eyes glued to something infinitesimal in front of him with almost inhuman stillness, "Ya gotov otvechat’." His voice was as rough as gravel.

Ready to comply

The Major walked over to a table and retrieved a file and opened it to the middle part. He placed the docket in front of the Winter Soldier, the file making a slapping noise with the table.

There were two photographs fastened to the docket with paper clips. The larger of the two photographs, and coincidentally of better quality, was of a rounding man with a thinning hairline and thick moustache. The smaller photo wasn't in colour or of a high resolution, the only features that could be made out were that it was an image of a woman wearing a trench coat almost as white as her hair, large glasses obscuring half her face.

"Your target is this man. He's a French politician."

The Winter Soldier stood, his metal finger tapping heavily on the photograph. "Understood."

"Soldat. Take extra precaution. He's hired extra security. Someone we've had trouble within the past. She has made quite a name for herself due to her illusive nature. No one knows where she came from, who trained her or her real name. The intelligence community has taken to calling her the White Rabbit."

The soldier flinched, his brain scrambling for a moment as a woman’s voice he didn't recognise spoke out as clear as day: "The little rabbit?"

Internally, a high pitched noise generated a distorted image of blood-stained lips opening into an unnerving smile. Dead eyes staring up at the sky.

His head jerked to the side in a ridged motion before it snapped back in place, strands of long raven hair sticking to the sweat on his face. The noise fizzled out of his brain as though it never existed. He looked up to his superior officer and shrugged off the incident that just occurred, "Understood."

~Paris, France~

You followed your client into the VIP lounge area of a prestigious club. As soon as you walked through the bead roped entranced, a ring of smoke diffused around your face, a trail of white smoke leading back to a patron sitting on a couch blowing out expertly crafted smoke rings from a hookah pipe. The smell of clover and something more primal, sexual, stuck to the walls of the secret member’s only club. Amidst all the fancy dressed men and women, you stood out with your all-black tactical gear.

Your client walked past several seedy rooms until he reached the final room at the end of the hallway. You stepped in front of him and opened the door. After canvassing the area you gave him the all-clear. Several minutes later his associates arrived and they all sat around in a circle of expensive tastes, finely tailored suits and beefy cigars that reminded you of Colonel Phillips.

It was strange how your memory of your encounter with him brought you comfort, but these days comfort was near impossible for you to find, so you took it where you found it.

You stood as still and balanced as a marble statue, your gloved hands held behind your back in a stiff posture. On occasion, you and other bodyguards would do a sweep of the room.

"Jesus, doesn't she freak you the fuck out?" One of the smartly dressed men asked in fluent French. A language you were well versed in. "She's like a fucking statue. I haven't seen her move once. Except for those dead eyes of hers."

Your employer glanced at you with a large cigar between his crooked teeth, "Sometimes, sure. But I've noticed how intimidating she makes me look when I'm in a room filled with assholes almost as lecherous as you!"

The men laughed- so did some of their protection detail.

"Besides, once you get passed the whole ghost look, she's actually not so bad to look at," your employer grumbled suggestively with a sick grin on his face.

Your eyes snapped to him and he choked on some of his spit, washing it down with a glass of port. You looked back to the windows as you canvassed the area again. A breeze blew the lace curtains softly, making you think of the lace curtains that had drawn patterns across Bucky’s face with the sunlight in his apartment.

You bit down, hard, as you forced yourself to focus on hand. A ray of red-light was reflected by a well-polished, silver, decor piece. The ray transformed into a dot and instinctively you reached across the room and pulled the back of your employer's chair to the ground.

The soft whistle of a silencer pierced through glass, grazing the side of your arm. You snarled at the contact.

The room was silent for a second and then a second bullet pierced through the glass window, this time forcing it to shatter.

"Get down!" You ordered as several security personnel moved to shield their employers and transport them away from the room.

You kicked the oak tabled to the side and took cover behind it. "Get them to the safe room downstairs!" You ordered the rest of the personnel.

"What about you?" One of the bodyguards asked.

"I'll lay down cover fire. Get them out of here." You said calmly as you upholstered your 9mm handgun and fired based off the trajectory of the bullets holes lodged in the wall.

Several of your bullets ricochet off something metallic from the sniper's nest on the adjacent roof. The impact forming sparks in the night air.

The room became a burial site for sniper slugs as they littered the walls and sofas and decorations. The metallic pinging sound reminding you to stay hunkered low until your enemies clip ran out.

You reloaded your gun and fired off cover shots as you moved away from the window. On the ground was a single casing. You recognised the make. Soviet slug, no rifling. The memory of the ambush in the mountains skittered across your synapses before you were brought back to the present by another shot tearing through the weak walls.

Suddenly, the shooting stopped. You rose from behind cover and tried to gain a visual of the target with a piece of broken mirror. From this angle, you saw the silhouette of what you assumed to be the rifleman run and then jump. The sound of glass shattering from the window a floor below alerting you to the fact he was now in the building.

A small object hit the floor in the room around the same time, you looked over and realised he had thrown a grenade into the room.

"Fuck..." you swore in a panic, holstering your gun before you lassoed the hooked end of your utility rope around a column and dove out the window. The explosion from the grenade sent off hundreds of pieces of shrapnel flying through the air. You managed to outrun the brunt of the impact, but some slugs embedded themselves in your back and thigh. You gasped from the pain.

Swinging in the air, you propelled your body towards the window the assailant had jumped through and unclipped the rope from your belt once you dove through the window.

You ran after the sounds of a heavy man’s boots sprinting down the series of open rooms. You were faster and more agile so you caught up to him faster than most would've been able too. As soon as you got close enough to the man, you sprinted closer and slid your legs under his in an effort to topple him.

He anticipated your moves with inhuman speed. As soon as your leg knocked his off-balance, he used his metal arm to balance his upheaved weight around and down so he was facing you as soon as his body stopped moving through the air. His fingers leaving a trail of claw-like scratches on the floor.

You quickly upholstered your weapon while your back was on the ground and fired off several shots. The assassin deflected them all with his opened metal palm.

You hissed in annoyance then backflipped twice to gain some distance between you and him before you fired more shots. This time he bobbed and weaved, avoiding most of your bullets save for the one that scrapped alongside his protective eyewear, grazing the skin above his eyebrow in an angled slant.

The assassin charged at you with all his strength. You pulled the trigger but the clip was empty. You tossed your gun and timed his charge so you could sling over and around him, wrapping your legs around his midrib as you furiously hammered the business end of your elbow into the concave of his shoulder blade.

One, two, three, you landed bone-crunching hits into his collar and shoulder blade but it didn't slow him down for a second. He reached over and around, grabbed the back of your tactical vest and flung you over and away from him.

Your body slumped into the wall with intense velocity, popping your shoulder out of its socket and leaving an indent in the drywall. You coughed out blood, then shook the ringing from your ears and stood to face him. Gripping your dislocated arm, you tugged on it hard, snapping it in place with a painful grunt.

"Okay, comrade. You want to play dirty, let’s play dirty!" You rotated your wrists clockwise, activating the current switch embedded inside. They thrummed with an electric current pulsating through them as you unclipped the metal batons from your back. Electric crackles of electricity sparking down the length of you metal fight sticks. "Let's see how well you handle current!"

The assassin stalked over in large strides, upholstering his knife from the side of his leg. He gripped it with the precision of an expert. Come to think of it, a lot of his tactics were similar to those you were taught in the Red Room.

He forward slashed and backslashed in quick succession of the other. You pirouetted away on your light feet and spun around him, bringing your electrified batons crashing down on his metal arm. The electricity conducted lethally from your gloves to his body, making him let out a shrill howl.

The sound of his cries sounded familiar. Darkened but familiar.

You faltered for a split second and that was all the time he needed to spin around and kick you against the wall.

You heard your rib crack as one baton fell to the ground. Relentlessly, he traded one blow after the other with his metal arm aimed at your head. You ducked and leaned away from each attack, but the wall now had four fist-sized punctures in them.

For his final move, he spin-kicked you in the stomach one more time and the wall integrity gave in. You fell through the crumbling wall and landed against a mound of white, dusty drywall.

The assassin hovered over you, knife in hand. Your mouth was filled with the taste of blood and your organs screamed in agony. You tried to crawl towards your batons a few inches in front of you.

You dragged your body at a snail’s pace, the assassin simply followed after you in languid steps. When your hand wrapped around the baton, his boot pressed down on your gloved hand, preventing you from lifting it and cracking the electric conductor that generated the current in yoyr gloves.

He turned you over so your back was to the floor and your eyes stared at his black mask. He slipped his knife between your ribs and you let out a soft gasp for air.

"Hhhnngggg!" You bit down to keep from screaming, your mind beginning to fracture as you hallucinated pink petals raining down around you.

You gripped his hand and tried to push it away. A sliver of electricity passed through you both. Your eyes shot open from surprise. For a second, you thought you were back in your old apartment, hands laced together with Bucky while you sat on your couch. Then the bone serrating sound of the knife leaving your chest snapped you back to the present.

With what remnants of a stable mind you had left, you urged the muscles in your hand to work as you reached into a pouch pocket and pulled out a syringe of adrenaline. You took several controlled breaths and then plunged it into your heart, a scream rippling out of your lungs as you pushed down on the plunger.

***

The Winter Soldier stood, backing away from his defeated foe, wiping his knife on the sleeve of his shirt as he made his way towards his real objective. Then he heard her gasp raggedly and his mind instantly pictured her wearing a pink waitress uniform, notepad in hand, offering a handkerchief to a scrawny man seated across him.

He braced both sides of his head as this intrusive image seared like hot coals across his thoughts. The pain was so intense he was brought down to one knee in a loud thud. A scream filled the room and he willed the pain to stop as he turned to look at the woman he left dying on the floor, except she wasn't dying anymore.

In amazement and curiosity, he watched as she picked herself off the floor. Every scrape, cut and wound beginning to heal, as she came after him. She danced around him faster than before, the adrenaline making her a nimble opponent, too slippery for him to get his hands around. She punched, kicked and elbowed with combo after combo in a dizzying flurry.

The Winter Soldier was slowly backed towards a tall window. She kicked him three times square in the chest, face and shoulder, sending his back forcefully into the window glass, causing it to sound out a cracking sound the instant his face guard got knocked off.

When he thought she was about to finish her attacks and kick him out the eight-story building, she froze. Eyes opened wider than ever, eyeballs skittering across every inch of his face in search of something, her lips and fingers quivering subtly. It was then he saw her fists no longer clenched defensively.

"That's impossi--" Her words no louder than a pin-drop.

The Winter Soldier's metal arm reached out and grabbed onto her arm, using his tremendous strength to fling her into the adjacent wall. Their faces mere inches apart. Hers contorted by pain and confusion. She stared into his steel-blue eyes, causing a shiver to run down his spine. Her petite fingers wrapped around his hand -still connected to her throat- but she didn't fight him.

Anger filled his senses as he couldn't make sense of all the images and colours and flashes that were evoked by her touch. The skull-cracking headache placing unbearable pressure on his cranium. He tried to blink the pain away, and for all his agonising efforts, it only grew deeper. The Winter Soldier struggled to keep his grip fixed on her throat.

***

Bucky's metal fingers felt so cold against your skin, almost as cold as his eyes. It hurt you how devoid of emotion they were when he stared at you with menacing rage. Nevertheless, you kept searching for a glimpse of the man you once knew. The man you once loved. And if the swell of emotions tangling against your heart was any indication, you were certain you were still in love with him.

Your fingers slid along the length of his arm as he turned his gaze away from you as though you burned him. His brows close together and eyes crinkling in pain.

You were a half-inch away from touching a strand of his outgrown hair when his head snapped back to yours with a newfound determination, and then he began to squeeze his grip.

He effortlessly raised your body off the ground, feet dangling as blood rushed to your brain. Your fingers began to claw and dig against his iron-clad grip, fighting to open up your airways.

***

The woman struggled against his tightened grip, back of her feet kicking against the wall as she failed to gasp for breath. She made him feel uncertain. The touch of her skin, even against his metal arm, felt hauntingly familiar. Almost as though they had this before, be close to one another, touch one another. Another image attacked his thoughts, this time she was seated beside him high atop the world, watching an extravaganza of fireworks.

“What… Is she doing to me?” His thoughts screamed in disarray.

Whatever powers she had over him mattered not because no matter how many images shed conjure to bombard his senses, and no matter how conflicting his feelings became, she was keeping him from his target. And the Winter Soldier never fails.

"Bucky..." She whimpered.

His hand began to shake as another memory was awoken:

“Bucky,” she whispered before bridging the gap between the two them. Rumblings of a crowd begin to cheer and whistle. Her giggling into the kiss. Fireworks going off in the distance, bathing her skin in its artificial rainbow of colours.

The Winter Soldier shook his head furiously, blinking away the image. He looked back up at the woman locked within his death grip, her face turning red.

A single tear ran down her cheek and plopped onto his metal arm. She looked at him without fear or bitterness.

"Buck," she failed to let out the whole word through cracking vocals.

Another flash bombarded his senses:

“I’ve missed you, Buck,” she admitted. He placed one hand around her cheek, the other around the small of your back holding her gaze. His lips met hers in a passionate embrace, she leaned into his touch as a moan escaped her lips. He guided her body towards a wall, pinning her there while one hand moved achingly slowly from her waist to her thigh. His grip greedy and rough causing her to quiver.

The flash disappeared just as quickly as it had appeared.

The woman saw this as an opening as sucked in as much air as her constricted airways were allowed.

"Buchanan!" She shouted with all the strength she had left, eyes glaring at him with fire.

This time the flash was stronger:

"Buchanan!" She mewled as she climaxed atop him. Her swollen lips placing sloppy kisses on his. The muscles of her core contracting around him, edging him closer to his own release. He gripped her hips higher, she moaned pleasantly in response. He thrust deeper, trying to become one with her, and then he climaxed inside her, filling her completely. She fell against his chest like a rag doll, her fingers drawing circles where his heart should be. Then he uttered: "God… I never want to be apart from you."  

***

Bucky, or whatever it was he had become now, instantly released his fingers from your neck, leaving behind deep bruised marks. You sucked in air like some famished animal, your hand gripping at your shirt collar.

You scampered for purchase on the wall as your balance was still uneven. Slowly, you brought your eyes to meet Bucky's and this time you felt relief.

He was on his knees, a lost expression taking over as tears slid down his face. He was looking up at you, hands shaking furiously. The veins on his temple swollen and exposed. This wasn't the face of the stranger who just tried to kill you. This was the face of a man torn in two.

Hope flickered to life inside you. Your eyebrows drawing upwards in solace. A dark chuckle sputtering in your throat.

Of course, this was how fate decreed you meet again. Any other way would've been too easy.

Through the silence, you picked up the soft sound of the elevator nearby ding each time it went up a floor. There was you back up.

"H-Helen?" He finally found the strength to speak in a voice darker than the one you knew.

You hadn't expected him to call you by that name. You knew your focus should have been on the miracle Bucky was alive and seemingly hadn't aged, or the fact he remembered you, but instead, your thoughts returned to that damned day in the mountains. To the sound of bullets cutting through bodies, explosions scattering shrapnel into your body.

Your mind retreated further into itself, returning to that chair in the torture cell and all the times you'd been showered with shock after shock after shock.

You knelt down and picked up a piece of piping that had been loosened during the fight. Your eyes closing shut for a moment as you took shallow breaths.

The pain, starvation and hate you endured while being held prisoner at the expense of Yelena's betrayal turned into a whirlpool of rage, dragging you to the bottom of a dark pit inside you.

When you opened your eyes, white-hot fury burned through your irises. You snapped like steam building in a pressure cooker and before you could stop yourself, you swung the piece of piping at Bucky's head, knocking him onto the ground. He was out cold.

The elevator dinged again. They were getting closer.

"I always hated that name," you dropped the pipping and ran your hand through your damp hair. You tried to strategize how to get out of this new predicament. "Now, what the fuck am I going to do with you?"

Chapter Text

image

Versailles, France

You paced about the room, trying to make sense of everything. Trying to understand how Bucky was alive. Somehow looking no different than he did in your dreams -your nightmares. Would he still be real enough if you dared touch him? Would he still be tangible? Whole? Flesh?

And what of the metal arm?

What of the imposing foreign object that shone like a piece of starlight, reflecting the amber licks of flame from the fireplace at you like a malicious taunt from the universe? Was that some twisted claim of re-genesis. It's joint held in place around scarred skin. A mark on his body, a permanent symbol of his rebirth. The receipt for what he’d lost. His pinkslip.

He was unconscious, arms cuffed to a radiator in your small little safe house, the fireplace keeping the biting cold at bay, though you suspected you kept shivering for a different reason altogether.

The teapot whistled over the stove, steam permeating the room in a haze filled with the scent of peppermint. After Germany, after the experiments, you had been prone to suffer panic attacks more frequently. Periods of time that would be swallowed whole, leaving you with gaps in your memory and uncontrollable shaking fits. Sal had been the first person to wrap you in a blanket and sit with you through the worse episodes. The smell of peppermint tea would always line the walls and fill your nostrils. It became a constant now. A coping mechanism.

You sat on the edge of the bed, refusing to pry your eyes away from the unconscious Bucky, even for a moment, a second. You were afraid that if you blinked, then so would he, except he would blink out of existence. A part of you ached to touch him, to caress his cheek and feel his hair twine around your fingers, but you were afraid to.

The man chained to your radiator was not the same as the cold-blooded killer you had fought before, but that didn't mean he wasn't another creature, an anachronism free from the confines of time. Maybe he wasn’t just one thing anymore. Maybe he was both killer and man.

If your prolonged life had taught you anything, it was never to poke feral creatures when you thought they were asleep. And as peaceful and docile as he looked right now, Bucky was indeed a feral creature, broken and pieced together until he didn't know who he was anymore.

"How are you real?" you spoke in an undertone, voice still raspy.

As you inhaled the steam, your mind backtracked to the moment you first found out of his demise.

***

 

You walked through dozens of faceless persons perusing through the museum, reading up on the great feats of Captain America and his trusted Howling Commandos.

Being here felt like you were trespassing on hallowed ground, an uninvited vampire in a church. You kept your head low, white hair hidden beneath a baseball cap as you made your way, almost on instinct, to a particular section of the exhibition.

Passing the glass display case housing Captain America's suit, a smile tugged weakly on your lips at the humorous thought of the scrawny little Brooklyn boy you had met at the diner fitting into that six foot one monstrosity. A part of you ached to see that pure smile of his again, it never failed to lift your spirits. That was a sentiment you'd been sorely deprived of lately.

You moved onto the next exhibition, this one displaying the life and death accounts of one James Buchanan Barnes. It was like a slap across the face, reading a memorial plaque in a damned museum in place of a KIA letter that started with the obligatory 'We regret to inform you'.

You had spent hours staring at the words inscribed on the glass display, torturing yourself with what if's and could have been's.

A whimper got stuck on its way out of your throat as your eyes fogged up with salty tears, your hand reaching out to touch the last photograph taken of Bucky. You would have cried right there and then had a small kid, no older than four, bumped into you.

"Jack, so help me God, if you don't stop runnin' off every five seconds I'm gon--" The woman's familiar voice was kept from finishing her sentence as soon as she saw the side profile of your face.

You plastered on a fake smile, turning to meet the boy's mother, "Don't worry about it, everything's–"

You froze in your tracks. Delicate pearls were strung around the boy’s mother’s neck, flat curls unwinding from the summer heat, bags under her eyes. Her right hand clasped the fingers of a girl a little younger than the boy. The two of you stood there, wide eyes glued to each other as drones of people moved passed in your peripheral.

The woman looked from the scars on your arms to the few strands of white that peaked from under your cap, straining to look at you properly as if she saw a ghost.

"Elle?" She breathed out.

Horror filled her kind eyes as you nodded rigidly.

"Yes Momma?" her daughter looked up at her innocently.

The first genuine laugh shook from your chest, "Hey, Sal."

***

 

A deep groan filled the empty space. Bucky was waking up. You set your teacup aside, bare feet softly trekking on the creaky wooden boards like a cautious cat. You grabbed a knife from your boot holster by the shoe rack as a precaution. As a habit.

You weren't sure who would wake up, the man or the killer.

"Where am I?" he looked around, unfamiliar with his surroundings. He tugged at his hands and noticed they were bound. Frightened, he looked up at you, lost and at war with himself, the lines on his forehead crinkling as his eyebrows crashed together. "You… You tried to kill me… I- I tried to kill you."

You took a step forward, "Bucky?"

He shivered, eyes forced shut, "N-no… I- I don't know."

You took another step and he recoiled further into the wall at the sight of your knife. You rose both your hands, setting the knife on the floor and stepping away from it.

"What's going on?" His head shook violently, he looked cold, even though sweat trailed across his face. It was like he was in withdrawal. In pain.

"Do you remember what happened?" You knelt a few meters from him.

His head snapped to the side as he took in a straggled breath. "I… had a mission. I have a mission."

"You recognised me earlier, you recognised your name: Bucky."

His head snapped the other way, "Hhhgg, no! I… that's not my- Arrrh!"

Your hand balled into a fist. God, you wanted to ease those crinkles and lines away from his beautiful face. You wanted to coax those beautiful ocean blues back from the treacherous depths of the darkened sea they had now become. But you couldn't. Not while he was in such a state.

"Maybe this will help," You pulled out a photograph from your back pocket and slid it over to him.

He peered at it through narrowed eyes, "That’s my face…and yours. We… we knew each other?"

"Yes," you sighed in relief. "We did."

"These other faces," his gaze landed on Steve. "Who are they?" He looked up at you now, a deep-seated melancholy pulling at his features. "Who am I?"

You inched a little bit closer to him, and when he didn't try to back away, you decided to move even further. "You are… James Buchanan Barnes. Your best friend was named Steve. You were a hero, the both of you."

"A hero..." he didn't believe the sentiment but you noticed his muscles unclench, "And how do we know each other?"

"We were… close, once. You knew as Elle. I worked at a diner you frequented."

"Elle..." His focus was drawn to your hair, "White. Snow. White snow in the mountains," he mumbled before grasping his head in his hands as he whined agony. "The rabbit…the rabbit got away… Into the forest. Into the dark. So dark… Failure to complete. Failure to complete. Spiders, spiders everywhere. Screaming. Make it stop! Make it stop!"

He was shaking violently now and you placed your hands on his biceps, trying to steady him. "What did they do to you Buck?" you mourned for the man who was no more, for the Bucky that was stripped down to this skeletal version of his old self.

"Red. Yellow. Hissing. So much hissing. The metal screams. It burns like fire. Like needles in my brain. They all scream. Make them stop!" His voice cracked.

"I'm right here, Buck. I won't leave your side. I promise," you smoothed your hands through his hair as tears began to well in your eyes. "Not again. Not ever again. You'll be okay."

He leaned into you, all his weight crushing your sternum, his shaking vibrating through you like seismic quakes. He whimpered like a kicked dog, eyes shut so tight you thought he was trying to will his sight away. The icy temperature of his metal arm felt warmer than his cries. Hands grabbing at his ears to block out the phantoms in his brain.

"Make them stop..." he cried, bottom lip trembling like a child’s.

You placed your forehead to his, feeling utterly helpless, "I don't know how."

After his shaking subsided, you found that now it was your hands that were shaking. You exhaled sharply, running them through your hair as you tried to calm yourself. Seeing him like this broke something in you and it felt like the walls were caving in. Choking you. Burying you alive. You rubbed your neck, remembering how it felt to be deprived of oxygen. You much rather preferred that to this emotional torture.

You stood, waving the tension from your fingertips away, heart beating like you’d run a marathon.

"Please..." he begged when you left his side. “Please don't go. The voices. Don't leave me alone with them. I don't want to see their faces."

Your teeth chattered, a quiver mangling with choked back tears of your own. Everything was so… overwhelming. And no matter how closed in you felt, you couldn't leave him to suffer alone. After all, wasn't it your fault he was remembering?

Maybe it would have been easier on us both if he had killed me, you thought.

"I promised I wouldn't leave you," you reminded him.

He was staring at the photograph again. "Tell me more. Your voice. It blocks them out."

You blinked rapidly, trying to dry out your eyes, "What do you want to know?"

"Did… did I have a family?"

A twinkle crossed your lips, "A big one from one I gathered." You returned to his side, sitting beside him so your shoulders touched and your head rested on the wall. "I never met them, but I know you had sisters. Maybe four. After the war… I looked for traces of you. I found a marriage certificate belonging to one of them. Her name was Lottie I think. She married a former air force pilot. They have a son. Named him James…" you turned to look at him, dark hair blocking his face. "After his uncle."

He leaned back, a frown growing, then he let out a frustrated sigh, "I don't remember her."

You decided to continue talking, it seemed to help him. "I found records of your mother too. Winnifred Barnes. Wife of George Barnes. She was a combat nurse during the war. When it was over, she volunteered with the Red Cross. She died a little over ten years ago, I think… Contracted some form of viral infection. Never shook it off."

Bucky shook his head, banging it against the wall, "I… I don't-"

You placed your hand on his metal arm, twitching when you remembered it being wrapped around your neck –which was now healing from the purple marks it left behind.

"It's okay," you smiled.

"Who is he?" he asked, pointing at the photograph.

You chuckled fondly, "That's Steve. In many ways, he was a part of your family too. He'd always get into trouble. A heart of gold, but not the best self-preservation instincts. One in a million. I'd never thought people like him still existed in this world."

Bucky swallowed loudly, "Is he...?"

"Yeah, he died too. He saved millions of lives in the process. It was a noble end."

“When… when was this photo taken?”

You chewed at your inner cheek, “A few years before world war two.”

"Why do I look the same?" He turned his head to face you, panic peeling up his eyelids. "Why do you?"

"I… I-" you ground your molars together. You wanted to know the answers to those questions too.

Suddenly, a loud banging emanated from your door. Bucky returned to looking like a trapped animal, wiry eyes staring at the door. You held up a hand.

"Relax, I'll go see who it is."

You picked up the knife from the table and walked to the door, peering out through the peephole.

"Shit," you swore as you holstered your weapon. "Go away, Alexei!"

"You didn't check-in. The company sent me to look for you. I heard about the attempt on your mark." His thick Russian lilt coated his gruff voice.

"I'm fine Alexei, I just needed to lay low."

Bucky's spine curved as he curled into a ball, more indistinguishable mumbles breaking out as he spoke in tongues. You turned to him, worried.

"Who's that?" Alexei demanded, hearing the incomprehensible mutterings of a mentally crippled man.

"Nobody, Alexei. Go back. You found me, confirmed I’m well, mission accomplished."

"They'll come looking for me..." Bucky warned you as he watched a lizard crawl up the wall, its tail curled at the end.

"Who will?" you whispered.

"I don't know… but I don't think we want to find out."

"Y/N, let me in before I start kicking down doors!"

"Alexei, no!"

"You've got until I reach twenty," he warned.

You couldn't know what would happen if Alexei saw Bucky. He was still in the same clothes he wore when he tried to assassinate your mark –when he tried to kill you. There was a high chance Alexei would be able to tell Bucky was the assassin from earlier, or at the very least be able to make an educated guess. And as much as you trusted your partner, you knew he wasn't one for placing brains over brawn.

Alexei started counting down and you paced about, trying to figure out a way through this mess.

Bucky had gone limp, chin pointed high as he kept an eye on the lizard's tail.

"Twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen..."

Bucky's entire body froze, his hands balling into fists. Then he muttered a single word, "Semnadtsat’."

"Seventeen, eighteen, nineteen..."

Bucky broke the restraints easily, standing off the ground in a measured motion, his shoulders squared like a soldiers. The scared, shaking, lost boy was no more. And when his eyes found to yours, they were darker than the night. Instantly, you knew he wasn't Bucky anymore and you felt him slip through your fingers all over again.

You gasped and reached for your knife just when Alexei broke the door down. The soldier attacked the big Russian man. His metal arm cracking and knocking at bones and vital organs. Alexei wasn't averse to a good fight, in fact, he'd been honed into the perfect soldier a bottle could cultivate, but he still wasn’t a match for such unbridled rage. Alexei retaliated, his punches slow but heavy.

You watched from the side-lines, unsure of how to proceed.

"Bucky, stop!" You shouted between the sounds of metal crashing into flesh and flesh hooking into flesh.

He kicked Alexei into the wall, a crack dusting up cement and then he turned to you, but for some reason, he didn't attack. He just stood there, a menacing wraith like before, except with a pang of sadness to him that he didn't have the first time. Then he stormed out of the room.

You let yourself breathe again, dropping the knife you had braced in a defensive stance as you rushed to Alexei's side. The photograph missing from the floor.

"You big brute, you should have listened to me," you wiped the blood from his mouth with trembling fingers.

Alexei groaned, his hand on his sides as he tried and failed to sit up, "Stop him."

It hit you then, why he never bothered to kill either you or Alexei. It was because you weren't the target. You weren't the mission.

 

When you arrived at the building where your mark was being guarded, you were greeted by flames. And Bucky was gone. Again.

Your breathing hitched, quick shallow breaths flaring at your nostrils as you were dragged into a state of panic. Your fingernails scraped at your scalp as you bit your tongue so hard a droplet of blood fell onto the pavement.

I failed you once, James Buchanan Barnes. I won't a second time. Mark my words, I will find you. We will cross paths again… Winter Soldier.

 

***

The Winter Soldier had completed his mission, his target was dead. The Major opened his red book and the mechanical hiss of the machine attached to the chair screeched through the hollow room. A flash of light seared through his ocular nerve. His hands gripped onto the armrests.

Sticking out between from a pouch in his armoured vest was the curled end of a black and white photograph.

A single phrase worming its way out of his subconscious.

"My safe harbour..." he whispered as they wiped his memory clean.