Steve carried her into the Wakandan medical bay, shouting orders despite not being in charge, and Natasha knew his handsome face was marred by a frown, knew the deep creases of concern that were etched between his brows without seeing them.
She could hear it, though she couldn't focus on it. Her head hurt, and she recognized distantly that it was the blood loss. Her mouth was dry, or she would open it and tell Steve not to be such a mother hen. She had endured far worse than a few gashes, even poisoned ones like this. Natasha was sure she was in for a rough night though. Her stomach was twisting like a ball of coiled snakes and the muscles throughout her body ached like she'd been stretched on a rack.
“Your Majesty. We wouldn't have come unless we had to,” she heard Steve murmur, voice lowered in recognition and respect.
“Think nothing of it, we are always honored by your visits Captain Rogers,” came the soothing, confident voice of T'Challa, but she couldn't seem to lift her head to greet the monarch. “We will take her to Medical straightaway.”
“I never seem to bring you much more than trouble,” Steve replied, and even though she couldn't see them, she wanted to smooth away the stern, guilt ridden frown lines she knew were pulling at the corners of his mouth. He wasn't just talking about her, she knew that. But since she couldn't figure out what he wasn't saying; her specialty of reading between the lines and following the undercurrents failing her, she knew she was in bad shape.
She was handed off to gentle hands, she could feel the shifting as the blackness crept into her vision. She could hear Sam's voice murmuring low and urgent in the background. It felt hot, swollen beneath her skin, as though her brain was swaddled in cotton and she could not pull it away. She was dismayed to see her own hand curled into the ripped fabric on Steve's chest from her vantage point slumped against it, unwilling to let go.
How weak, she thought as it fell away and she scoffed at herself before she lost the fight against the black.
The weather here was balmy, the winds cool and carrying the warm sweet scents of dried grass and manure. It was the end of a temperate summer and the animals around him grazed indiscriminately on the low growing plants at their feet. The sky was a boiled, endless blue streaked with wispy white clouds, and Bucky followed the lines of the mountains with his tired eyes while he waited for the visitor who had come up the path behind him to speak.
“You're looking good, Bucky,” the voice said from behind him after a long pause, but he didn't turn around quite yet. He had heard Steve coming, had recognized the cautious steps of a man never quite comfortable in his own great size. Footsteps not hesitant but careful. Steve Roger's had never forgotten the scrawny boy trapped within the All American hero. They walked within one another.
“You're looking pretty average for a Super Soldier,” he replied as he turned around and took in his bedraggled friend.
Still appallingly handsome covered in dirt and scorch marks, Steve came to stand a comfortable distance away, leaning forward slightly as if resisting the urge to hug him. Bucky was both glad of it and dismayed. But a simple handshake would suffice where words could not and it was offered solidly. They clasped hands, and Steve's blue eyes took him in, cataloging him in the familial, hopeful way he always did. He was looking for fresh wounds to bandage, for visible signs of healing. He wanted something he could actively fight against and champion. He was looking for Bucky, and Bucky was not sure that what Steve needed would ever be found. Self-consciously he reached up and touched the empty space where his arm used to be. It was wrapped comfortably, didn't bother him at all except for the phantom touch of limbs no longer there on the mornings when he woke up on the ghost-gasp of a nightmare, reaching for a gun or a knife or a garrote that wasn't there. Then he felt vulnerable, and forgotten.
“What brings you to my lonely little stretch of goat hill? You just stopped by a few weeks ago,” he sighed, smiling slightly as he gestured around with his remaining arm.
Steve looked away, swallowed, squinted at the horizon. Something weighed on him then, some burden of guilt he was shouldering alone judging from the set of them.
“Mission went south.” he said in his clipped, military tones. “We got cornered, ended up taking on some dangerous people we hadn't expected to see. Blew up another bunker full of illegal weapons. We're good at that.”
Steve looked at the ground, and Bucky could feel the guilt radiating off of the other man palpably. His shoulders sagged visibly, as open with his feelings as Bucky was closed.
“Agent Romanoff. Natasha. She's in the med bay here,” he wiped his hand across his mouth as if he were erasing the words from the air.
It took all Bucky had within him not to jerk to attention when her name was mentioned. He stilled sharply as Steve continued.
“There was something coating one of their weapons and she took a deep cut to the hip. She's burning up with fever. I thought that this was the best place to bring her quickly. It was touch and go for a time.”
Bucky swallowed in a mouth suddenly gone horribly dry and his stomach heaved, knotting terribly. He tried to hide his visceral reaction as anxiety and want and pain swelled together within him like a horrific tsunami. It crested, blinded him, broke over him, and he trembled. His knees buckled slightly as sweat broke out on his forehead, but they held.
“Buck?” Steve said, and stepped forward to place a hand on Bucky's only arm. “Are you alright?”
He opened his eyes and nodded but could not manage a smile to reassure his friend. Steve didn't know, had never known, would never know. The closest he had gotten to those secrets was that he knew Bucky always had a weakness for redheads.
“I'm fine,” he coughed. “That just happens sometimes.”
He had been remarkably steady, healing even if he didn't deserve to. He felt a flicker of guilt at the concern that darkened Steve's blue eyes, but looked away.
“Romanoff?” he tried, fumbled over the name with his dry tongue; Romanova, “She going to pull through?”
Everything within him was stretched tight as a wire past its breaking point. Everything within him was poised to snap if Steve told him she would not. There was a gnawing urgency low in his belly, waiting to flare up and engulf his entire world if Steve didn't tell him the truth and quickly. Tension thrummed through him, squeezing his chest painfully. He kept his face as still as he could and glanced at the ground. This had blindsided him. He had been so very careful to keep his thoughts flung far from his past, from that particular time. He was not ready to face that reality yet, was afraid that he would be swept under it in a tide of loss and rage and greed.
So much had been taken from him. So much.
“Nat, she's stronger than she looks. A formidable woman. She'll make it,” Steve said with confidence.
Bucky relaxed slightly, muscles unclenching. His jaw cracked when he loosened it and he realized he has bitten his cheek hard enough to draw blood. He swallowed it. It coated his parched throat.
“That's good,” he said blandly, squinting back up towards the mountain line to hide the red smeared over his teeth, tasting nothing but salt and copper and old wounds.
Natasha woke up to the the low murmur of doctor's and the soothing bright white of Wakanda's medical bay. Wide expanses of glass opened to a panoramic view of the mountains and the hills were the first thing her mind could focus on. She breathed in and out slowly, and allowed herself a slow catalog of her own body. She tested until she was satisfied that all her limbs were intact and unrestrained, and that she was in full control of her faculties. Shifting, her hip ached, but it was a negligible pain all things considered.
“You're awake!” came a cheery, accented voice, and Natasha turned her head to spot the young princess of Wakanda skimming over a three dimensional scan that she was quite certain was Natasha's own as she approached. It disappeared in a scatter of three dimensional particles at the wave of Shuri's hand.
“Captain Roger's was difficult to keep away,” she said. “But I kicked him out of here so you could wake up and not feel like a bug under glass!”
“Thank you,” Natasha croaked, throat dry, and leaned her head back, closed her eyes. “He dotes in his old age.”
“Drink,” the girl said, closer now, and Natasha opened her eyes again to see a glass of water being offered. “You need to hydrate. That was a nasty poison in your bloodstream. You are lucky you are enhanced else it would have killed you within minutes.”
“Very lucky,” Natasha smiled slightly, one corner of her mouth quirking ruefully. Of course the technology of Wakanda would pick up on her bastardized serum enhancement. She wondered if she would have to explain herself to Steve, and if she was ready to. She took the glass in treacherously shaking hands and sipped. Slowly. She knew the drill, having been poisoned enough times during her Red Room training to know that the recovery was slow.
“You are a very beautiful woman, though I expected nothing less from the Black Widow,” Shuri nodded approvingly and removed the glass from her hand. “I always thought it would be wonderful to have green eyes.”
Natasha had read the files on the young genius before, and knew that she spoke her thoughts seemingly as soon as they entered her head. If she wasn't so tired she might have some witty reply, but words failed her momentarily. There was a low ache in her temples, her stomach. She felt as though she was fogged over somehow, and knew it was the pain medication and antibiotics no doubt coursing through her system. She glanced at Shuri, who was studying her with a keenly assessing eye. Has she missed something? How very unlike her.
“Thanks,” she said hoarsely, and lifted her head, rubbed her temples.
“You will have a wicked headache but should be mobile whenever you feel ready after today. Go easy on that hip. I mended the skin synthetically but it will tear easily for a few days. Maybe lay off the hand to hand combat until then,” Shuri cautioned.
“Is Captain Rogers waiting?” Natasha asked. She wanted to debrief, to talk about what went wrong. Failure did not sit well with her.
“He went to see the White Wolf,” Shuri said, and Natasha's senses were still keen enough to recognize that there was definitely something in the way the girl was looking at her. She was being studied.
White Wolf. He'd been awake long enough to gain another moniker.
Her heart stuttered away from that line of thought. Carefully, she masked any and all expression, shifting her persona into something else entirely, something neutral and banal. A chameleon shifting into yet another color. This was, after all, what she did better than anyone else.
“Thank you,” she said with a warm smile. “I think I had better rest some more before Captain Roger's comes back.”
Shuri looked disappointed at her lack of recognition, but shrugged. “That would be best. I can dim the lights.”
And she stepped away without another word, and in a moment the huge windows with the expansive view of the beautiful skyline dimmed to a comfortable haze. Natasha shifted as best she could off her bad hip, rolled onto her good side and tucked her hand beneath her chin. Rest was not easy with her but there were too many drugs coursing through her system to fight the pull of sleep for long, and knowing that her teammates were outside and had her back reassured her in a way she refused to admit out loud but was undeniable. She stared, unseeing, at the darkened windows. For a long time, she fought the force of her eyes closing. She did not want sleep to claim her, did not want to dream with him so near.
A girl of fifteen, with soft red hair curling around her beautiful face, a perfect button nose, a beguiling scatter of freckles and stunning green eyes. Natalia is one beauty among many beautiful young girls training for deft and cunning carnage in the Red Room. But she is by far the best, the most skilled, the most intelligent and quick. She has known nothing but the Red Room since Ivan brought her, has had the wants and needs of the young bred out of her until she is nothing but a whip of speed and brutality and sheer cunning. There is nothing outside of her duty to her country, to their cause. It burns within her like a constant inferno, the grandeur of the Greater Good everything she has been taught to fight for, until she is given the honor of training for a week with the Winter Soldier to further hone her skills.
He is menacing, brutal, dead eyed and lanky haired. The first thing that strikes her about this ghost of a killer they have all been taught to revere is that he looks unkempt. This surprises her, as her own appearance is scrupulously maintained by her handlers. She knows that they keep him in cryostasis between missions, it is whispered about in the mess halls and on darkened nights, but he looks older than she expected him to be, nearing thirty, practically ancient. His silver arm, emblazoned with a red star, is a thing of obscene, unparalleled menace. A weaponized extension of Hydra's grand design, he is everything a perfect assassin should be. His eyes are as blue as the frozen winter skies when the chill bites into your skin like fangs.
She is forced to try him in hand to hand combat, his specialty, over and over and the training is more arduous and torturous than most any she has endured to date. He is punishment in motion, brutal and cold and giving no quarter to her despite her age and size. He has been told not to show mercy, and he follows his instructions to perfection as he teaches her the proper way to snap a neck, to incapacitate a man three times her size, to use her light weight and the strength of her thighs to strangle the life from a mark. She leaves each session with huge bruises that heal more rapidly than they should, and muscles thrumming with fatigue and excitement. She is growing in strength. She is blooming beneath his relentless tutelage.
The flash of his silver arm begins to haunt her at night long after their lessons end.
He is sent on mission after mission and between bouts in the cryochamber she ages while he remains the same. She sees him at a distance sometimes, trailing resolutely behind whatever handler has unthawed him for his dire purpose. Sometimes he is sent to them to hone their sniping skills, to teach them the intricacies of firing between heartbeats. At the nod of a head of a superior, she sees him break the arm of a girl who fails to grasp the concepts quickly enough, and begins to question in the deepest parts of her mind if the Red Room is truly on the side of good at all. Yana is taken away and never seen again, like many girls before her. He leaves the Red Room and is not seen for some time.
And when she is eighteen, she finally meets him again.
He has returned to the Red Room to train her in another specialty, and it is an early morning session where she waits in the training room for him to arrive. She has not seen him in about two years for all she can determine in her loose concept of time. She heard he had been frozen again for some time after his last successful assassination and she is eager to prove herself to him. She wonders if time passes for him within the ice like a coma patient who is still aware of the world around him or if the years stolen from him are like a simple sleep. It unsettles her somewhere in her core, and she turns her mind away from the thought.
Natalia is standing beside the barre in her standard white leotard, stretching out her legs, anxiety fluttering slightly in her belly before his arrival when the door opens and he steps within. It closes behind him with a solid click, and his eyes lift to hers. His eyes are blue and flat and hollow.
“Come,” he says in stoic Russian, and his voice is so much younger than she remembers. “Show me what you now know.”
Dutiful but proud, she approaches the center of the mats and settles into a wary stance, biting her lip when she catches his cold gaze. A ploy. Let him think her intimidated.
She moves first as he intends and he sidesteps left, spins around her, throws a heavy punch with his bionic arm that would crush her skull if it had landed. She is adroit, moving with speed and a touch of desperation because she remembers how painful his landed blows are. She remembers the punishment that is later mete out by her handlers for each one that lands because they are watching. They always are, and they do not allow failure from their most promising project. Breath in, steady, she darts forward and lands a strike against his chest, useless but encouraging. If she can land one hit she will land more. They spar for some time and she breaks out into a fine sweat though he remains unfazed.
She tries to read him, tries to use the sum of her training as a Black Widow, the Black Widow, to find the information she needs to dismantle him.
For the first time in their history she looks.
His forehead is just slightly too low, his eyes just slightly too spaced, his nose just slightly too small, to be considered truly beautiful. His nostrils flare slightly when he exhales, his brows remain lowered and angry.
But her eyes flicker lower and his mouth, oh his mouth.
The wicked slant of his dour lips, slightly uplifted at each corner even at rest as though his mouth has secrets he will not share. In that split second, this is the first thing in the entire history of her existence that she has ever wanted – blindingly, stabbingly – for herself. There is a sudden intense need that explodes within her to touch those lips, to taste that mouth, to feel it move against hers, and she nearly gasps. It strikes her painfully, the only outward sign a slight shift in her stance, and if he noticed her falter he did not react, only used it to his advantage to flip her onto her back with precise, punishing force.
“You lost yourself,” he says in perfect Russian.
But no, for once, she thinks, hot and fearful and defiant as she looks up at him. “I am still here.”
He blinks, unmoved, while her entire world has shifted.
She brushes herself off, trembling as she gets to her feet once again as she keeps her wary, shaken eyes upon him. He returns the look impassively. She drags in a breath, shakes out her shoulders, and moves into an offensive position once more.
She makes a vow to herself to keep this flash of self, of identity. She is more than the sum her makers have intended.
She is here.