~~ 1991 ~~
"Ready for battle, Soldier?"
"Who are you?"
"I'm the ballerina that's going to join the Winter Soldiers."
"What is your name?"
"Natalia Alianovna Romanova. Call me Black Widow."
"And you think you have what it takes to be a Winter Soldier, little dancer?"
"Let's test it. If I don't make the cut, you will never hear from the Black Widow ever again. If I do, I want photographic evidence that I, a little dancer, overpowered the great Winter Soldier."
"That can be arranged. Train well, Widow, and I will see you on the training grounds within a week."
~~ 2014 ~~
Natasha shook her head. "Hm?"
Steve offered her a smile. "You looked a little spaced out for a moment. I called you about five times. Something on your mind?"
Natasha shook her head. "Just thinking."
"About? I can be a good listener."
"I know, Steve. When I first joined Shield, I thought I was going straight. But I guess I just traded in the KGB for Hydra. I thought I knew whose lies I was telling, but . . . I guess I can't tell the difference anymore."
"Something else, Nat."
Natasha raised her eyebrows. "You're good, Captain, I'll give you that."
"Distantly," Natasha said honestly. "His killer, the Winter Soldier," she clarified.
"Any particular reason?"
"He's a man with a mask who has a killstreak higher than my own, Steve. Can't a girl be curious?"
"Or threatened," Steve joked, hoping to lighten the mood. It worked; Natasha gave Steve a small smile.
~~ 1995 ~~
"Soldier, the Black Widow will join you on this mission."
The Winter Soldier raised his gaze to his superior. "As far as I am aware, she is frozen. It will take time to bring her out. Time that I do not have."
"Very well. You will carry out the assassination with the assistance of--"
"I can carry out the assassination solo."
"Hmm. When you return, you will be wiped before going under. Can't have you developing a personality."
Natalia crept through the ventilation until she reached the room where she had been, for lack of a better term, defrosting. That was twice the Winter Soldier had lied through his teeth to keep her from a mission.
~~ 2014 ~~
Steve stepped to the side and let Natasha kick Jasper Sitwell off the building. She spoke over the man's fading screams. "Oh, wait. What about that girl from accounting, Laura . . .?"
"Lillian," Steve said, "lip piercing, right?"
"Yeah, she's cute."
"Yeah, I'm not ready for that."
With a rush of wind, Sam Wilson returned Sitwell to the building roof. Natasha cast the metal Falcon wings a brief glance. The things she'd be able to accomplish with those. . .
She walked with Steve towards the man, who held up his hands in fear.
"Zola's algorithm is a program . . . for choosing Insight's targets!"
"What targets?" Steve demanded.
"You! A TV anchor in Cairo, the Undersecretary of Defense, a high school valedictorian in Iowa city. Bruce Banner, Stephen Strange, anyone who's a threat to Hydra! Now, or in the future."
"The future? How could it know?"
Sitwell laughed. "How could it not? The 21st century is a digital book. Zola taught Hydra how to read it." Steve and Natasha stared at him, both equally confused. "Your bank records, medical histories, voting patterns, e-mails, phone calls, your damn SAT scores. Zola's algorithm evaluates people's past to predict their future."
"And what then?"
"Oh, my God. Pierce is gonna kill me."
"What then?!" Steve repeated, his voice rising in volume.
"Then the Insight Helicarriers scratch people off the list. A few million at a time"
"Hydra doesn't like leaks," Sitwell informed them as Sam drove to Triskelion.
"So why don't you try sticking a cork in it," Sam suggested.
"Insight's launching in sixteen hours," Natasha said, "we're cutting it a little bit close here."
"I know," Steve said, "we'll use him to bypass the DNA scans and access the Helicarriers directly."
"What?!" Sitwell cried, upon realising that Steve was talking about him, "are you crazy? That is a terrible, terrible idea."
He didn't get to say why, because something landed heavily on the car, pulling Sitwell out through the window and throwing him into oncoming traffic. Bullets riddled the car. Jumping into the front, Natasha managed to move both Sam and Steve out of the way of fatal shots.
Steve pulled the handbrake up, tossing their attacker down into the street.
Winter Soldier, Natasha's foggy memory supplied, staring at the metal arm that dug into the tar. Another car rammed into theirs from the back, and before any of them could recover, the Winter Soldier jumped back onto their car and pulled the wheel right through the windscreen.
"Shit!" Sam cried.
Natasha fired at the Winter Soldier, but he jumped onto the vehicle behind them. Steve grabbed hold of the door as their car was pulled off the road. "Hang on!"
He broke the door open, holding on to Sam and Natasha, and they slid along the streets on the door.
The three scattered as Hydra agents joined the Winter Soldier and opened fire. With him firing at her, Natasha fired back at the Winter Soldier, managing to catch his goggles. Then she took off.
He addressed the Hydra agents in Russian. "She's mine. Find him."
When her voice sounded from behind a car, the Winter Soldier rolled a small bomb under it. As the car and cell phone exploded, Natasha jumped onto the Winter Soldier's back and tried to take him out. He threw her off with ease. She sprinted, glancing back once with a smirk on her face.
Something about the attack and chase gave her a familiar thrill that she couldn't quite put her finger on. She yelled for civilians to get out of the way, focusing instead on the present than her fogged up memory.
A bullet lodged in her shoulder, Natasha lost her footing and tumbled to the ground. She looked around her, eventually finding the Winter Soldier come up in front of her. He raised his gun to her head.
Natasha knew those eyes from somewhere. She frowned. Why did her memory always cloud up whenever the Winter Soldier was involved? What was it about him that affected her so badly?
He hesitated for a fraction of a second, but it was enough time for Steve to jump in and attack him.
James, something told Natasha, his name is James.
Steve and the Winter Soldier battled it out, both equally as strong as the other, but somewhere along the battle, the Winter Soldier's mask flew off. He turned back to Steve.
"Bucky?" Steve asked in a small voice, nearly dropping his shield out of his hand.
"Who the hell is Bucky?" the Winter Soldier stated, raising his gun to aim at Steve. As he did, Sam swooped in and kicked him aside. He took aim again, but Natasha used the grenade launcher he had dropped earlier on to fire at him. The Winter Soldier vanished in the smoke, and the trio was surrounded by Hydra agents, led by Rumlow.
"Drop the shield, Cap! On your knees! Get on your knees! Now! Get down! Get down!"
Steve held his hands up.
"Get on your knees! Down!" Rumlow kicked Steve's leg and the man kneeled, still stunned by the discovery of who the Winter Soldier was. "Don't move."
Rumlow looked at the helicopter that circled them, then at Rollins, who held Steve at gunpoint. "Put the gun down. Not here," he warned, "not here!"
The Hydra agents took the trio into custody.
"It was him," Steve said a few minutes later, "he looked right at me like he didn't even know me."
"How's that even possible?" Sam asked, "it was like seventy years ago."
"Zola. Bucky's whole unit was captured in '43, Zola experimented on him. Whatever he did helped Bucky survive the fall. They must have found him and . . ."
Natasha pulled herself out off her own web of thoughts. "None of that's your fault, Steve."
"Even when I had nothing, I had Bucky."
Sam glanced at Natasha, noticing how much she bled. "We need to get a doctor here," he told the guards, "we don't put pressure on that wound she's gonna bleed out here in the truck."
One of the guards whipped out an electric rod -- and then neutralised the other. "That thing was squeezing my brain," Maria Hill complained as she pulled the helmet off. Sam stared at her in confusion. Maria glanced at him. "Who's this guy?" she asked Steve.
~~ 1996 ~~
"What's your name?"
"I do not have one, Widow."
"Come on, everyone has a name."
"Natalia. I do not have one."
Natalia pouted. "Yes, you do. And I found it. I just wanted to know if you'd tell me, James."
He shook his head. "I don't have a name."
"You do. I found your file in Hydra's records. You were Sergeant Barnes in the war, an American soldier. Now you are the last surviving Winter Soldier."
He raised an eyebrow at her. "You don't consider yourself a Winter Soldier?"
"I was only given enough of the serum to stabilise and preserve my body during freezing. I'm no Winter Soldier, I'm the Black Widow."
"So the little dancer overpowered the Winter Soldier with nothing but her own skills."
Natalia beamed. "Yes."
"James, why is it that you remember very little about our time together each time we are woken?"
"Each time I am put under, I'm wiped. You aren't."
"I am a Soldier. You, the Widow. Hydra does not own you the way they own me."
"But they do own me," Natalia said, shifting closer, "you do, anyway."
"Who said I'm Hydra?" he teased, his metal arm circling her small waist.
"You could crush me with just that arm."
"I'm going to forget this in a few days, you know."
Natalia kissed his forehead. "I'll have to remind you next time, then."
He tightened his hold on her ever so slightly. With his right hand, he pushed her red hair out of her face. "I look forward to it, Widow."
~~ 2014 ~~
"GSW," Maria told a doctor, gesturing to Natasha, "she's lost at least a pint."
"Maybe two," Sam said.
"Let me take her."
"She'll want to see him first," Maris said.
She guided them through the facility to Fury, who was alive and laying in bed. Steve and Natasha's jaws almost dropped.
"About damn time," Fury said.
As the doctor tended to Natasha's wound, Fury spoke. "Lacerated spinal column, cracked sternum, shattered collarbone, perforated liver, one hell of a headache."
"Don't forget your collapsed lung," the doctor said.
Fury nodded. "Oh, let's not forget that. Otherwise, I'm good.
"They cut you open," Natasha said, "your heart stopped."
"Tetrodotoxin B. Slows the pulse to one beat a minute. Banner developed it for stress. Didn't work so great for him, but we found a use for it."
"Why all the secrecy?" Steve asked, "why not just tell us?"
"Any attempt on the director's life had to look successful," Maria explained.
"Can't kill you if you're already dead," Fury said with a shrug, "besides, I wasn't sure who to trust."
"Mission report," Alexander Pierce said as he walked into the bank vault, followed by Rumlow and a few other Hydra agents.
The Winter Soldier did not respond.
"Mission report, now." Pierce waited for a response that never came before he moved closer and struck the soldier's cheek.
"The man on the bridge . . . who was he?"
"You met him earlier this week on another assignment," Pierce lied.
"And the woman?"
"I knew them."
"Romanoff?" Pierce asked, his face contorted in confusion. He glanced back at Rumlow, who shrugged.
"Romanoff," he murmured to himself, "who was she?"
"You saw them both on your previous assignment," Pierce said.
"I know her."
Pierce pulled a chair over and sat down in front of the soldier. "Your work has been a gift to mankind. You shaped the century, and I need you to do it one more time. Society is at a tipping point between order and chaos. Tomorrow morning we're gonna give it a push. But, if you don't do your part, I can't do mine, and Hydra can't give the world the freedom it deserves."
"But I knew them."
Ignoring the insistent tone he was presented with, pierce turned to the nearest scientist. "Prep him."
"He's been out of cryo-freeze too long."
"Then wipe him and start over."
Pierce left the bank vault as the process began, ignoring the screams that echoed.
Natasha shuddered, for some reason.
"You all right?" Sam asked.
"Blood loss," Natasha lied, "it does that."
"Right," Sam said, not believing a word.
"This man," Fury said, looking at a photo of Pierce, "declined the Nobel Peace Prize. He said, 'peace wasn't an achievement, it was a responsibility.' See, it's stuff like this that gives me trust issues."
"We have to stop the launch," Natasha said.
"I don't think the Council's accepting my calls anymore," Fury said, opening a case containing three chips.
"What's that?" Sam asked.
Maria explained it. "Once the Helicarriers reach three thousand feet, they'll triangulate with Insight satellites becoming fully weaponized."
"We need to breach those carriers and replace their targeting blades with our own," Fury said.
"One or two won't cut it," Maria said, "we need to link all three carriers for this to work, because if even one of those ships remains operational a whole lot of people are gonna die."
"We have to assume everyone aboard those carriers is Hydra. We need to get past them, insert the server blades, and maybe, just maybe, we can salvage what's left . . ."
"We're not salvaging anything," Steve told Fury, "we're not just taking down the carriers, Nick, we're taking down Shield."
"Shield had nothing to do with it."
"You gave me this mission, this is how it ends. Shield's been compromised, you said so yourself. Hydra grew right under your nose and nobody noticed."
"Why do you think we're meeting in this cave? I noticed."
"And how many paid the price before you did?"
"Look, I didn't know about Barnes."
Barnes, Natasha thought, Sergeant Barnes. James.
"Even if you had, would you have told me? Or would you have compartmentalized that too? Shield, Hydra, it all goes."
"He's right," Maria said with a small shrug.
Fury looked at Natasha, who was unresponsive but wore a flat expression that gave nothing away, then at Sam.
"Don't look at me," Sam said, "I do what he does, just slower."
"Well . . . looks like you're giving the orders now, Captain."
~~ 1998 ~~
"How old are you?"
"I was twenty-seven when we met. I turned twenty-eight just before I completed my first mission with the Soldiers. Why?"
"You're very young."
"I'm the same age as you, Soldier."
"I was referring to the date on your birth certificate in comparison to the others, not our biological ages."
"Oh. Does it bother you?"
"No. I'm impressed."
"Soldier, you know the Red Room trains young girls as soon as we can walk."
"Still. It is impressive. You're credited with more assassinations than I am. I plan to change that."
Natalia laughed softly. "Bet on it, Soldier."
"Your weapon is mine if I succeed. Duck."
Natalia dropped and a bullet whizzed over her head, taking out the guard whose curiosity had been too great. Natalia loaded her weapon. "If in twenty years, my kill streak is higher than yours. . ." she did not want Hydra to hear her conditions.
The Winter Soldier could not help the laugh. "For someone void of anything to ground her, you sure like traditions, Widow."
"Shut up and watch my six, Soldier."
"Yes, ma'am. On your left."
Natalia fired without hesitation, and a body dropped in the distance.
"I'll have one of your weapons, Widow. One day."
"We'll see, Soldier."
~~ 2014 ~~
Natasha walked with Maria Hill. "What intel does -- or did -- Shield have on the Winter Soldier?"
"I'm not sure. Is there a specific reason?"
"I like to know my opponent's weakness in advance."
"We know very little about him. He was quite a covert assassin. You ran into him once, I believe."
Natasha nodded. "Yeah, about five years ago."
"Shield doesn't have much on him. We didn't know who he was. We did know that records state he had a partner. The two worked together in perfect harmony. The Winter Soldier alone has above twenty-four murders credited to his name. The pair in total has a count almost twice that. According to what we have, Barnes and this partner of his have been operational since the early nineties, but no one knows what happened. I assume his partner either died or was relocated, because he came alone for the three of you."
Natasha frowned at the floor as she walked. "Does Shield have anything on the partner?"
Maria raised her eyebrows.
"I don't want a surprise attack from this mystery partner."
"Right. No, we don't. Barnes was covert, but his partner was even more so. No one even knows his name."
Natasha nodded. "Could it be someone kept in suspended animation just like him over all that time?"
"Could be. Maybe there was another like him in the forties. Like I said, not much is available to read from."
"Right. Thanks, Hill."
Natasha nodded and turned to leave.
She turned around.
She didn't know what Maria was referring to, but she nodded and smiled. "Always."
~~ 1999 ~~
"Soldier," Natalia greeted.
"You can call me by my name, Nat. There isn't anyone else on the floor."
Natalia scrunched up her nose. "Names are for normal people. We're not normal people."
"No, we aren't."
"Calling you James just seems so . . . wrong. It is your name, but. . ."
"It's not me."
Natalia smiled and crossed the training room. "True. You are my Soldier."
"Does that make you my Widow?" James asked, giving her a grin as he set his hand on her waist. Natalia could feel the warmth from his hand over her clothing.
"That would be so terribly awkward."
"True. But you are. You are my vicious and venomous Black Widow." He glanced down at her necklace rather than her face. "And I will not remember it."
Natalia put her hand on his cheek, lifting his head. He looked at her. "And I will remind you every time. Haven't I done a good job all these years?"
"And what happens when you forget, Natalia? What then?"
"It's funny how you think I'll be able to forget you, James."
"What if you're wiped? You can't control what you remember and what you don't. You'll forget everything. Everyone. Whoever you love and trust won't mean a thing to you. You'll be nothing more than the Black Widow. You won't be Natalia. Trust me."
She scoffed. "As if. I'll always remember you, just as you'll always remember me. I'll just need something to jog my memory. You can be Hydra's Winter Soldier all they want, but when it's just the two of us, you're my Soldier, my James, and nothing could ever truly make me forget that forever. I know because I can be Hydra's Black Widow for as long as they want, but when we're alone, I'm your Widow, your Natalia."
"You remind me that I have a name, a life," James said, moving her bangs from her face, "you remind me that I'm a person, just like everyone else. You remind me that I'm not just Hydra's weapon."
Natalia wrapped her arms around his waist, resting her head against him. "You remind me that I'm not just a stone-hearted killer, that I can love. You remind me to feel."
"Why do we hide in here, Widow? Why don't we run away? Hide somewhere else?"
"Because we're dangerous, Soldier. We're volatile, unpredictable. We need to be watched, to make sure we don't step out of line. We're not safe. We're a danger to ourselves and others."
"One day we'll leave Hydra in the dirt," James promised, kissing the top of her head, "one day we won't be too dangerous for the world."
"When, Soldier? I'm tired of having to wake you up each time. It drains me. It hurts me. To watch you wake up a heartless weapon that I must slowly coax back into being James. It would have been easier if I didn't love you."
"It would. The Red Room failed to teach you not to love. You can run away, Widow, but it will catch up to you. All that aside, you get a thrill out of this forbidden romance."
"You know me so well, Soldier."
"Did you ever doubt me, Widow?"
~~ 2014 ~~
Natasha left the folder with Steve and headed to the Smithsonian. She had found out that the Winter Soldier was a man called Bucky Barnes that Steve had known from a young age. She knew that no one had much information about Barnes, and she wasn't about to ask Steve to recount his best moments with Bucky, so her next best shot was the exhibit.
Sneaking in after dark, Natasha was surprised to find someone already standing before the exhibit. On impulse, she pulled out her gun and took aim. One shot and she would have killed him. He was dressed casually, with a baseball cap on his head, but his posture intrigued Natasha.
It wasn't calm nor relaxed. He stood stiff and in perfect posture . . . quite like a soldier.
"Soldier," she said, her voice ringing clear in the empty museum.
Bucky turned around to face Natasha.
Romanoff, the name bounced in his head. Pierce had said it.
"Widow," Bucky replied, pulling the name from somewhere in his memory.
Neither knew why the interaction felt vaguely familiar.