Like most great love stories, this one started out with a punch in the face. World War Two was all the rage in America, boys lining up by the truckload to grab a gun and serve their country, dancing all the way to their deaths. For men, there was plenty of room for error, stupidity, and brashness, all within the safety of the battlefield.
The women, on the other hand, took over the factories, sporting fashionable grease-stained jumpsuits, but handled only the pieces of guns, never the whole things. No fighting was in their future unless they went to war for it. Given that there was already a war going on, it seemed a pointless battle to most. To the few that saw otherwise, this was their chance.
When Ashley Grey joined the army, she did it dressed in bright red heels and a low-cut dress. She walked into a bar with the mild reassurance that every eye was on her, and this was definitely exactly what she was going for. Spotting her target, she rolled her shoulders back subtly and obviously raised an eyebrow at him.
He had the face of a man too busy to care about things as pointless as good looks. His face drooped with long years and rotting sunlight, but what Ashley caught were his eyes, two specks of dust that only wanted to float away. From what, Ashley suspected she was about to ask to figure out for herself.
“You the colonel?” she asked with her practiced nonchalance, standing just behind him so he had to turn to face her, which he did after a beat.
The colonel looked up at her through his haze of drink, slow and unaffected. “I’m a colonel. But I only have enough money to pay for this drink, so you’re wasting your time.”
She breathed a quick laugh, though her heart was rioting in her chest. “Charming, but that’s not the kind of proposition I’ve got.”
His silence was, Ashley hoped, a signal for her to hurry up and make her pitch. “It’s no secret that the Allies are losing men in droves. Even with our help, the loss of life will be enormous if we keep fighting like this.”
“No kidding, sweetheart,” the colonel said, taking a long sip of his drink, presumably Scotch before adding, “I suppose you have a magical solution to this problem?”
Here it is, she thought, summoning her courage. “Yes,” she said with an easy smile, tilting her head to the side to show off her best angle. “And all you have to do is listen.”
“Kid, if I had a- “
The sudden pressure of a hand groping her backside sent chills up Ashley’s spine. “Hey there, gorgeous. Nice pair of gams you got there.”
She didn’t see the man’s face until it was a pulpy mess. Instead, she spun around on the back of her heels, wrapped her hand around the offending wrist, digging her nails in until she felt the skin break, blood staining the tips of her fingers.
The man squealed like a braking train, but unlike a train, he didn’t know when to stop. He tried to raise his free hand and swing it at her, but she dodged it easily, twisting his restrained arm as she moved out of the way, now facing away from him.
When one of his friends tried to intervene, stepping forward with the intent of grabbing at her, she swung out a leg, an action which hurt her much less than it hurt the man’s crotch. He toppled over, and with her remaining momentum, she swung around and released the wrist of his friend, who looked shell-shocked. “I…”
“Why, you little-!” And then his other friend was promptly cracked in the jaw, falling backwards and landing on the ground with an anticlimactic thump.
There were a few agonizing moments of silence while the remaining patrons, most if not all of them military personnel (the bar was half a mile out from the barracks, after all), deliberated what to do next. The three stooges scrambled out of the bar, red faced but clearly outnumbered now.
“Well I’ll be damned. Are you okay?” the colonel asked, now standing as though he’d been ready to help.
She nodded, shaking her hands to use up some leftover adrenaline, alternatively bouncing each of her legs for good measure.
“I wasn’t talking to you,” the colonel said as he glanced at her sideways, and in fact he had been looking over her, though Ashley had originally attributed that to a bad case of toxic masculinity. However, she turned around and saw the collateral damage of her brief but intense fight, a man. Blood dribbled from his nose casually, as though it belonged there.
“Oh, that guy? I’m sure he’s fine. He’s got testosterone,” Ashley said matter-of-factly. “A useful skill in this line of work.”
He had the smirk of a man who knows he’s handsome, and even with the bloody, broken face, Ashley knew he wasn’t wrong. His blue eyes shone with mirth as they met hers. “Not as useful as that mean right hook.”
Ashley rolled her eyes. “At most, I elbowed you. At. Most.”
“Is that supposed to make me feel better?” the man asked, his voice nasally as he held his nose together with two fingers. The bartender handed him a napkin full of ice, which he took with a thankful nod. Beside them, the colonel was barking at the other men to carry on and stop with their “looky-looing.”
“Did he just say ‘looky-looing’?” Ashley murmured. Then, “Sorry, were you saying something?”
He raised an eyebrow at her, still smirking despite the obvious pain. “Don’t pretend like you didn’t hear me. That’s just plain rude.”
She smiled, but there wasn’t much bite this time. “You’ll get over it.”
By then, the colonel had redirected his attention to the girl who’d caused this whole bloody mess. He frowned at her, but it was hardly noticeable among all the permanent frown lines from a life of hardship. For all Ashley knew, he was really smiling. “You’ve got some nerve, kid.”
He wasn’t smiling.
“Where’d you learn how to fight?” he asked, though his tone made it clear that she had only the slightest scrap of his unmitigated attention.
“My brother was an asshole,” she said, not expecting a smile but pretending it was there for the sake of her nerves. Behind her, though, the man she’d elbowed in the face chuckled under his breath. She shot him a look saying Next time I’ll hit you where it hurts, and after a beat, she began her pitch, all under the scrutinous eye of a man who needed her but didn’t know it yet. And the colonel, of course.
His name was Bucky Barnes, and he was in for a trip.
Of course, she didn’t actually know his name until after she’d decided it was irrelevant, walking out of the bar with her arms tucked tight under her shoulders, her heels thumping against the wooden steps as she went, sticking in the mud as she broke free onto the dirt path.
“Hey, wait up!” he called from the door, letting it slam shut as he hurried up the path after her. Not bothering to slow her pace -or maintain it for that matter- she let out a breath of exasperation when he jogged up beside her, the air taking form in front of her lips. She stiffened as she tried to control her shivering. He frowned at her, eyebrows furrowed as he watched her struggle.
“I swear to God, if you offer me your jacket, I will finish the job and just break your nose,” she said through clicking teeth, not bothering to meet his eyes.
He laughed, the warm sound clashing with the chill of the night. “Why would I do that? Then I’d be cold.”
Under the dim moonlight, she deemed it safe to smile.
“I’m sorry about what the Colonel said. For what it’s worth, the army’d be lucky to have you. You’re a wicked fighter,” he said, rubbing at his injured nose. Ashley nodded absently, trudging down the path alone with the man walking beside her. She didn’t really have the heart to remind him that she wasn’t asking to fight. “My name is Bucky, by the way. Bucky Barnes.”
For a second, Ashley was sure he was about to hold out his hand for her to shake it. But either it was too cold or he knew better, because he simply walked silently beside her while she considered the consequences of saying, “Ashley.”
She forgot about the latter half of that fateful night almost as soon as it ended, erased from her memory the vaguely witty banter and subsequent awkwardness that resulted from the reluctance of both parties to say what they were really thinking. Instead, Ashley muttered an insincere excuse and a weak but sincere apology for the injury she’d caused before she ran off into the night to plan her next move. It wasn’t in her nature to give up when she knew she was right.
While Ashley focused more on the colonel’s rejection of her offer and her next steps, she left behind a badly-bruised nose and a series of burning questions that seemed to have no hope of being answered. Bucky Barnes thought about the soldier in the red dress long after she’d left him, wondering where she’d end up when he should have been worrying about his own fate. In a few months, he’d be at the mercy of Hydra agents, all thoughts of anything as hopeless as an incredible woman pushed out of his mind by necessity and a quickly-depleting desire for self-preservation.
It could have been the end of something that never began, if Howard Stark hadn’t been swayed a few weeks later by that same woman, who traded her red dress and clever words not for an army uniform but a lab coat.
She’d made it to the war. Now she just had to survive it.
Papers were strewn about the table like empty gum wrappers, all stained with black ink in shapes too small for any passerby to see as anything more than a blob of voided color. The rest of the kitchen was spotless, though not for lack of trying on behalf of those who owned it. As the papers continued existing in chaos, the coffee maker whirred.
“Tony, do you think there’s any chance –any at all- that you could take a break from your ego-stroking to come help me with this?” Ashley said, her head propped on her hand as she scanned over a single line of the page in front of her for the fourteenth time.
The man in question ran his hand through his hair before turning around to face his insulter, ready for a rebuttal but cut off by the sad sight of his opponent. It looked like she begun the slow and painful process of melting into the table, her upper half slowly drifting downwards towards the massive pile of papers strewn across the glass. Within another few minutes, Tony was willing to bet she’d be passed out on top of them, running the great risk of getting drool on classified documents.
He smiled at her and said, “You know, I was just thinking… Wuthering Heights is a classic novel, one the greatest examples of 19th century literature, especially—”
She sat up straight, taking the familiar bait, eyes wide with furious warning. “Don’t you say it—”
“—regarding women writers,” Tony said, holding his easy smirk all the while.
“Did I ever tell you I hate you?” she asked, raised eyebrow and faint smile focused on him. The tone of her voice was saccharine sweet, a very specific tone that she’d developed over the years as a non-punishable way to counter every irritating thing he’d ever said to her. Its use was a bit rusty, more than a little bit forced, but Tony appreciated the effort all the same.
“Only every minute of your childhood,” Tony said, then shrugged. “At least, the parts I was there for.”
Ashley sighed, letting her shoulders slump even while the rest of her remained alert. “I need a vacation.”
There was no point in hiding the roll of his eyes as he took a seat beside her, grabbing the stack of paper she’d nearly fallen asleep on to scan its contents. “Every time you say that, I offer to give you the week off. Hell, the month off if you really want it. And then—”
“And then I say I’m too busy for a vacation,” she said tiredly, the familiar script playing out beautifully.
He directed his attention, at least in theory, to the massive file in his hand. “Which is totally not true.”
“Yeah, yeah. Just read through that monstrosity and give me the cliff notes. If I stare at any more words that aren’t fiction, I’m going to gouge my eyes out,” she said, pushing back her chair, which scraped dully against the tile floor. Standing far too quickly, she grabbed her head while the blood rushed there, a subtle race to see what would make it there first. Blinking her eyes hard, she stumbled over to the coffee maker, which had finished its initial whirring.
“You good, kid?” Tony said, glancing at her sideways, though genuine concern flashed in his eyes.
She waved him off with one hand while the other expertly maneuvered through the complicated process of pressing a button to make the freshly heated water spill into the mugs she’d put underneath it. “Just need tea. Want any?”
“Do I look British to you?” he asked, not lifting his eyes from the paper. In fact, as Ashley waited for the water, she noticed his eyes narrowing as he got deeper into the paragraph. The machine dinged, and she put tea bags into the mugs and carried them both over to the table, sitting one just beside Tony’s elbow. He glanced up at her. “Thanks.”
“What’s so interesting?” she asked, pointing her mug-filled hand at the paper.
His eyebrows furrowed, an expression usually reserved for when he worked in the lab, and even then only when he was actually working, rather than his usual tinkering around. “You said Cap sent you these?”
“They’re Shield files. He didn’t give them to me, just asked me to find info on something,” Ashley said, sipping at her tea. Needed more steeping for sure, but sipping was better than fidgeting. “Shield happens to have info about a lot of somethings.”
“What is it with you and hacking Shield?” Tony asked, bouncing the tea bag in his fingers like a puppeteer. “Is it your new hobby?”
She huffed. “If you didn’t want me to do it, you shouldn’t have taught me how.” Tony glowered at her. “Look, that’s not the point. What did you find? Just looking at the thing makes my eyes hurt.”
Tony nodded absently, studying the dark circles around said eyes as she spoke. “It’s just… you know about Hydra, right?”
The word sent a shiver down her spine, perhaps not without good reason. “Of course. Real bad guys, wiped out during WWII by our resident patriot.”
“Shame we got him instead of Tom Brady,” he said, looking up at Ashley.
Her faux annoyance was admirable, but they both know she couldn’t care less about anything resting under the umbrella category of “sports.” In all honesty, neither did he. After a beat, she merely shook her head and let the façade drop. “You were saying?”
He flipped the front pages over to look at the cover for a moment before returning to his original spot. “It seems like Hydra might not be as wiped out as you previously thought.”
Tony cleared his throat, not without some dramatics. “‘A number of political attacks seem to be connected to a rising terrorist organization, one with potential, if distant, links to a terrorist group that was decimated during the second world war. These attacks are most easily identified, accompanying other characteristics discussed later, by their precise and incredibly damaging nature, almost always leading to the immediate instatement of either a corrupt or harmful new official or, in rare cases, a corrupt new system of government, one that promotes oppression under the guise of security and promotion of the greater good.’”
Ashley sipped at her now-perfectly steeped tea, her fingers gripping the mug like a crutch. The tea rippled in her hands as she said, “Sounds like Hydra.”
Tony looked up at her. “You act like you know them,” he said, his eyes teasing. “What was Steve having you look for?”
She shrugged. “Apparently, Shield’s been working on some big project, one that is supposedly gonna change the face of international security as soon as it’s operational. So he asked me to find out what exactly Shield’s afraid of.”
His face twisted as though he’d swallowed soap instead of tea. “‘Change the face of international security’? And nobody bothered to consult me on this?”
“Can you blame them for not wanting to work with a –what was it again—'narcissistic personality with a God-complex’?” Tony started at that, and the banter she initiated continued for a good while before someone suggested the thought of going to bed, which suddenly reminded the pair of just how tired they were. There was a firm agreement to continue the reading in the morning, but the prospect of that line of thinking made the weight of consciousness seem so much heavier.
As Ashley laid in her bed, rolling around in a fruitless attempt to find comfort on the massive, top-of-the-line mattress, unease scratched at the back of her mind, threatening temporary insanity. Half-formed questions about what the hell Shield was up to –and, in that same vein, what Steve was up to, digging around like that— did nothing to lessen the anxiety that was clawing its way up in her chest.
Eventually, she found some distorted form of sleep, one she’d didn’t necessarily enjoy but had grown used to since the first night after the Battle of New York, flashes of the demolished city and people mixing with the darkness of the room around her, casting shadows on the dream images, morphing hellish memories into something worse.
Then somehow asphalt turned to dirt, smoke to dust, and the open space was suddenly crushed with trees and brush, both of which were glazed with ice and streaked with blood.
The smile on his face was too reserved for Ashley’s liking. Howard Stark was many things, but he wasn’t a liar. At least, not a very good one.
“It’s too early in the morning for you to be keeping secrets from me,” Ashley said as she walked into the lab, shrugging off her thick navy peacoat and laying it on a nearby chair.
Howard walked over to her, hands so very casually resting behind his back. She rolled her eyes. “What’s that?”
“Good morning to you, too,” Howard said. “Tea?”
Ashley narrowed her eyes. “Always, but not until you spill. What’s going on?”
Howard sighed. “You take the fun out of everything.” His features shifted to reflect his excitement as he revealed from behind his back a manila folder, standard sized and packed with an average amount of papers. The words ‘classified’ were stamped on in the typical red ink. There was nothing particularly interesting in its existence, but Stark’s face made
Ashley think that perhaps it was the inside that counted in this particular instance.
Inside was a list of the soldiers of some regiment, which she pretended to scan, already losing interest at the ‘C’s. Behind that, the order for the production of a number of the new weapons she’d co-designed with Stark, accompanied by minimalist blueprints and work orders. The last three pages were the kicker, though, and Ashley skimmed over them three times before asking, “This is a joke, right?”
“I called and asked that exact question. Apparently, it’s completely sincere,” Stark said, and Ashley realized that his amusement was completely at her expense.
She rolled her eyes, thrusting the file back at him with no small amount of disgust. “How hard is it to fire a gun? Why do I have to be schoolteacher to a bunch of trigger-happy imbeciles?” Knowing in retrospect that complaining wouldn’t get her out of this, she changed tactics. “Why can’t you do it?”
Howard shrugged innocently. “Between running the lab and having absolutely no desire whatsoever to instruct a bunch of ‘trigger happy imbeciles,’ I guess the guys in charge decided you’d be a better fit.”
“Yeah, or they figured I had nothing better to do,” Ashley muttered.
Having mastered the art of glaring at her without any actual malice, Howard fine-tuned his craft while Ashley deflated in frustration, shoulders slumping in defeat. “Look, it’s only for a day. A few hours, maybe, to make sure no one blows themselves up with their new toys. These are your babies, Ash. I figured you’d at least be excited to see them in action.”
Ashley picked up the prototype for the now-mass produced gun and aimed it at the testing range directly to her right. Without so much as glancing at the target, she fired the gun three times in rapid succession, then disarmed the gun and put it back on the table along with the other devices strewn across it. “It’s a gun, Howard. The only thing special about it is how complicated I made it, all the pointless settings. They all do the same thing, just different ways.”
“Ash, this tech could save lives. Why are you so against it?”
She scoffed. “It was literally designed to do the opposite.”
Howard tilted his head at her, considering. “You know, for someone who was so desperate to be involved in the war –hell, in this lab– you sure do seem to hate every minute of it.”
It was a question, but Ashley didn’t really have an answer to it. Not one that made sense, anyways. She hated guns. Violence. But that didn’t fit with the narrative she’d made for herself. When in doubt, Ashley thought, just be vague. “Not every minute,” she said, smiling faintly, then changed the subject with the trained ease of a fraud. “So when are the troops getting here?”
He held the file out to her. “Not really my problem, now is it?” he said with a wry grin, then had the cheek to wink at her. She glanced pointedly at the guns littering the table beside her, running her fingers over the ones closest to her then drew her gaze back to him. Howard just laughed --more of a scoff than raucous laughter, but still – and waved her off. “Do whatever. You’ve got the day off. Least I can do.”
Ashley muttered something along the lines of “Yeah, no shit,” before walking off in the direction of anywhere but the lab. It took Ashley a few minutes of stubborn walking to realize that, other than the pathetic room she called an apartment, there really wasn’t anywhere for her to go on her surprise day off. Nowhere relaxing anyways, but there was nervous tension building in her ever since Howard had handed her that folder, and she needed it gone.
In the distance, she saw a group of boys training, doing pushups and drills and whatnot, and wondered if it was the same group she’d be performing in front of the next day.
Curious and in need of distraction, she sauntered off in their general direction. Troops came through the base all the time, but usually never stayed more than a few weeks. This was the last bit of their training before being shipped off to where the real fighting was, so Ashley made it a point to never get too close, proximity or otherwise. But, shoot her, she liked a change of pace, or at least the idea of one, and when the colonel saw her, she started marching, pretending like she was supposed to be there. She was good at pretending.
I am not a munitions expert, but I did some research into the firearms for the time to make what might be slightly believable narrative whenever Ashley's expertise in designing and using guns comes up. Still, for anyone who is an expert and can't stand inaccurate writing on the subject, I apologize.
She wasn’t really sure why she agreed to meet with Steve in the morning. Lord knew she needed more sleep, having only stolen bits and pieces of rest throughout her nightmare-plagued night.
As she walked toward the café, she saw Steve already occupying a table outside, glasses and baseball cap obscuring his identity for those who didn’t know to look. He looked up from his phone and caught her eye, waving cheerfully as she approached. Steve, bless him, was a godforsaken morning person.
If she wasn’t careful, Ashley might kill him before noon.
“Morning, Ash,” he said as she took her seat across from him. She remained kindly silent, since every thought that ran through her head involved some form of murder.
There were two cups on the table, one which he took a sip of, the other he gingerly pushed her way. The anger melted away as she realized what a great man Steve Rogers was, picking up the cup and gulping down its scalding contents. Steve opened his mouth to respond, but she put up a finger to shush him while she drank half of the liquid fire. When she was passably energized, she sat the cup down with a definitive thunk, and smiled brilliantly at him. “You’re the absolute best, Steve, you know that?”
He smiled faintly at her. “How much sleep did you get?”
She shrugged. “The tea will suffice. Good morning, by the way.”
Steve just shook his head, amused but refusing to admit it. “How’s Tony?”
Another noncommittal shrug wouldn’t convince either of them, so she didn’t bother with half-truths. “Not great. Ever since New York, he’s been all… jumpy. Anxious. I swear he thinks I’m gonna burst into flames. I just wish he'd quit worrying, you know?”
“Yeah, I do.” Steve sipped at his coffee, staring off into the distance. “But at least you’re there now, to make sure he doesn’t do anything too stupid.” After a beat, he asked, “You like Stark Tower?”
“Not really my style, but it keeps me from staying up at night worrying,” Ashley said, checking her phone absently, needing to move but trying not to fidget. “After he royally screwed things up with Pepper, I couldn’t stop wondering what he was going to do next.”
Steve put his hand on hers, stopping her pointless scrolling. “Hey, you okay?”
Ashley nodded slowly. “I had another dream last night.”
Tensing, Steve asked, “What was it?”
This had become a routine by now, ever since her dreams had started taking on a narrative, and yet Ashley wasn’t sure what to say. “I was in a forest, and it was winter because there was snow everywhere, and there were gunshots ringing in my head while I was stumbling around trying to find something, and I looked down at my hands, which of course were covered in blood, what else, and—”
“Ashley,” Steve said firmly, and it was only then Ashley realized she’d been shaking, her words having become rushed to the point of incoherency.
She shifted her jaw and straightened her spine. “I’m fine.” Steve narrowed his eyes at her, not accusingly but with obvious concern, as was his way. It was hard not to deflate at that. “I still don’t understand everything the Tesseract did to me. And I think these dreams are part of it.”
“And that’s a bad thing?” Steve asked earnestly.
“I don’t know. I mean, the nightmares certainly aren’t great, but if they meant something… maybe I’d be okay with that.” Steve nodded, looking thoughtful. “I looked into that thing you asked me about,” Ashley said after a bit. “It looks like you were right about it. Pretty,” she paused and let a smile spread across her face as she winked obnoxiously, “monstrous stuff going on there.”
He rolled his eyes. “I appreciate your discretion, but we both know you’re a better spy than this.”
She barked out a laugh. “Steve, can you even imagine me being a spy? I’d be all like, ‘The name’s Stark. Ashley Stark.’ And then they’d shoot me because I couldn’t help the obnoxious movie references. End my career before it started.”
Steve shook his head at her. “You know, this is a serious matter of national security. And I take it you managed to gather info from one of the most secure databases in the entire world?”
“Not saying much,” Ashley muttered.
When Steve gave her a hard look, she sighed, letting her nonchalant façade drop as she squeezed her eyes shut and let her mind reach out to the energy around them. Like static, it made stray hairs stand up on end, but Ashley ignored the odd feeling and molded the energy around them into something discreet, fashioning the area around them into a place that felt unremarkable. Her eyes popped open to see Steve staring at her.
“I always forget that you can do things like this,” he said, studying her and the area around them like abstract art. A group of people walked by without the slightest of glances toward their table, which might have happened without the mental shield Ashley put around it, but she liked to believe it was the cause. The air rippled around them like a pebble in still water, and Ashley watched it for moment before turning to Steve.
“I’m still not sure I believe it,” she said. With the barrier up, Ashley recounted everything she’d learned the night before, specifically the likelihood of a Hydra resurgence. Her head was pounding against her skull by the end of it, and Ashley rubbed at her temples, willing the pain away.
“You okay?” Steve asked, ever the concerned friend.
Ashley gritted her teeth and nodded. “I think the caffeine’s wearing off.”
“It’s been five minutes,” Steve said, deadpan.
“I have a high tolerance,” Ashley said, narrowing her eyes and pursing her lips at him. She threw an eye roll in for good measure, giving Steve no choice but to worry in silence. “But Hydra,” she said, sobering, “may not have been as thoroughly wiped out as you wanted. Is that why Shield’s so gung-ho about this new security system?”
“It’s not just a security system,” Steve said, filling her in on the three massive helicarriers set to launch by the end of the month. He rubbed a hand on his face. “What’s this world turning into, Ash, if we’re fighting back before there’s anything to fight?”
She raised an eyebrow. “You missing the olden days?”
“Nah. Just knowing how things worked.” He smiled, doing his best to make it appear unstrained. Steve was good like that. Ashley closed her eyes and willed the bubble to pop, releasing pent up energy into the larger world like breaking a dam. No one seemed to notice, though.
The rest of their meet-up went by smoothly, with laughter and jokes from both parties. However, while one left for work on self-sustaining energy sources, work she dubbed “necessary but dreadfully boring,” the other left to go to a war.
Of course, he wouldn’t know until he got there. As was the way of things.
She had come up with her act almost the instant she made eye contact with her mark.
“Sir,” Ashley said with a cordial nod when she approached the colonel, as though it was nothing more than a formality between colleagues. To Ashley, it was. The colonel, who previously had been casting a stern gaze over his subordinates as they performed physical feats that, by Ashley’s assessment, he hadn’t been capable of for at least a decade, reacted to Ashley’s presence with irritated surprise.
“Who are you?” he asked, looking at all of her, perhaps gauging his initial interest.
Ashley passed the general inspection with only the effort it required not to sock him in the jaw. “Ashley Grey, sir,” she said, holding out a hand, which he took, and shaking firmly, formally.
The colonel’s eyes widened at the strength of her grip, but he merely cleared his throat and said, “Of course. Colonel Mansfield. You’re going to be teaching my men how to fire a gun.” His tone was amused and only vaguely dismissive. He smiled broadly at her, as though mocking a child. “I have to warn you, though, I think I’ve done your job and then some.” Looking away from her, putting on a show of it, he yelled, “Men, line up!”
Mechanically, every soldier within eyesight dropped what they were doing -literally, in the case of those with medicine balls- and ran to their spots. They stood like ballerinas, legs together, backs arched to make themselves look straighter, their chests more prominent. The colonel glanced at Ashley with a proud little smile before commanding, “At ease, soldiers.”
The men relaxed so their legs were shoulder-width apart, now less ballerina, more action figure. “This is Miss Grey. She was part of the team that made the guns you’re going to be using.” He looked at her, still playing the part of a showman, gesturing at the opened crates of Ashley’s guns. “Tomorrow, she’ll be showing you the ropes on how to use a firearm. In case anyone forgot.”
There was a chorus of chuckles throughout the lines, and the colonel smiled at them conspiratorially. Ashley smiled blandly, an idea forming in her head. “Why wait?” she said pleasantly.
“I’m sorry?” the colonel said, bushy eyebrows furrowing into one thick caterpillar.
Ashley shrugged at him. “Well, clearly it won’t take very long, since your men know everything.” She was on stage now, too, and she scanned the faces of the men, most of whom were either confused or curious. “I could just do my demonstration now.”
It was a logical argument, and the colonel could hardly see the trap she was laying, so he had no choice but to agree. “Very well. Men, grab a weapon.”
The command spurred the men into action, all of them lining up to grab a firearm with programmed precision. Ashley stood in front of the crates, watching each gun go into the hands of another cog.
Some of them leered at her, and Ashley made a mental note of each of their faces. She didn’t care about their names, that feeling was mutual. One of them smiled at her faintly, meeting her eyes and hoping for recognition, but got nothing besides a curt nod and a sudden, though not entirely unexpected, wave of disappointment.
There were a couple of spares left in the crate once the soldiers were armed. She picked up both, one for each hand, and held one out for the colonel, who stared at it blankly.
“Might as well show them how it’s done,” Ashley said with a plastered smile.
He took the gun from her. “Of course.”
“Alright, soldiers, forward march!” she yelled, feeling official, then marched off in the direction of the range, not bothering to see if anyone would follow her. She knew they would, and if they didn’t, it meant her job was done anyways. A win-win situation if she ever saw one.
The range was nothing like the testing grounds in Stark’s lab, but rather just a series of posts with metal targets nailed on, riddled with bullet marks and chipping paint. She stood in front of the one dead in the middle, holding her gun haphazardly toward her feet, swinging it back and forth, looking like an amateur.
If it shot her in the foot, she’d grit her teeth through the pain, but the colonel was looking at her with eyes gleaming with impending patronization, so she kept it up.
Once everyone was stationed in front of her, except for the colonel hovering at her side, Ashley cleared her throat and went into teacher-mode, treating the gun like a meter stick as she began her speech.
“So, as I’m sure you all have figured out by now, those things in your hands are guns.” Some of the boys chuckled softly, but she ignored them. “However, it is also likely the most powerful piece of tech you’ve handled in your life, unless any of you are rocket scientists in your spare time, but if you think you can just go right into the field with these things and not clock yourself in the face, be my guest.”
She gestured to the range, and within a moment they realized it was an actual invitation. Most of them looked to their colonel for instruction, who merely smiled at the whole production.
“Right,” she said, and launched into an in-depth explanation as to how the guns work, specifically how to handle the recoil (which no one listened to, naturally) and how to change the settings at any time to switch from automatic to semi-automatic to burst firing to police baton.
The last setting brought about quite a few questions, mainly why it was a thing at all, to which Ashley replied, “It’s more useful than you’d think.”
The colonel just kept smiling. “Miss Grey, if my men ever find themselves in a position where they can’t be shooting, I really doubt that a big stick is going to help them out much.”
Jeering smiles washed over the group of them.
Ashley shrugged. “I’ll hold you to that.” She glanced at him sideways. “Sir.”
She ordered everyone to line up and try their hand at it. The first five victims tried their hands at it, and every single one managed to slam the end of the gun either into their face or somewhere close, missing the targets by a mile.
Before Ashley could correct their stature and grip, the colonel started yelling. “Is this really the group of strong, capable men I’ve trained, because all I see is a bunch of little girls. This is unacceptable. Again!”
“Sir, if I may, the problem isn’t strength, it’s the way they’re holding the guns,” Ashley said, sounding respectful but feeling her annoyance surge, a situation unaided by the colonel waving away her words with a flick of his hand. She seethed internally.
“Nonsense. This is nothing more than a bunch of little girls thinking it’s okay to slack off toward the end of training,” Mansfield said, cradling his gun in his hands like a fragile old book.
Having had enough, Ashley said, “Perhaps you’d like to show them how it’s done, sir.”
To be fair, she’d been debating whether or not she was actually going to persuade the man to make a fool of himself since she’d handed him the gun. At first, when she told the men how to hold the guns properly, since her designs were precise to say the least, Ashley was making an honest effort to the contrary. But nobody listened to her, and she was tired of it.
Colonel Mansfield nodded curtly, since clearly there was no other thing to do, and turned with his gun. He held it like someone determined to show off skills they’d never actually learned, faking it until they inevitably fired the gun at the target.
The shot missed wildly, because instead of staying firmly pointed in the general area of the pathetic signs, the barrel instead bucked up like a spooked horse, the back of the gun slamming into the cartilage in his nose, effectively and unquestionably breaking it.
Crying out like a wounded dog, Mansfield dropped the gun -which Ashley swiftly caught to keep it from misfiring, setting it gently on the ground instead- and grabbed his nose with both hands, a string of curses flying from his mouth.
She wondered how many of those curses were directed at her as she watched blood gushed from his nose and dripped onto his tightly-fitted uniform. “Those guns are absolutely unfit for use in combat. I will not have my men –”
Ashley stared right at the colonel’s bloodied face as she aimed the gun toward the field, firing five times, lazily and void of expression, each bullet landing on a separate makeshift bulls-eye. “Actually, sir, since I designed the damn things, I can assure you that they are perfectly suited for combat when the user actually pays any attention to the instructions spoon fed to them by yours truly. Maybe if you’d listened to me tell you to hold the gun like this,” she demonstrated, “instead of staring at my ass, you might have been capable of firing a fucking gun.”
Still clutching his demolished face, the colonel’s eyes widened in feral rage. “You bitch. I’ll have your job for this, mark my words. Men dismissed.” Mansfield stormed off, likely in the direction of the medic, and most of his men awkwardly dispersed with him, setting their guns back in the crates like robot children cleaning up toys. Ashley watched them for a little bit, then turned back to the targets and began firing pointlessly, hitting everywhere she aimed, which was nowhere in particular.
“You know, you really seem to have a knack for breaking noses,” said a voice behind her. She whipped around, gun still at the ready. The man immediately put his hands in the air, and Ashley narrowed her eyes as she tried to place his face. He seemed to realize this, because he said, “It might be easier to remember me if I still had tissues shoved up my nose, but I’m fresh out.”
She lowered the gun and squeezed her eyes closed, trying to remember. “Bucky… right?”
He nodded. “Gotta be honest, I never thought I’d see you again. Definitely didn’t think you’d be here screwing with my commander.”
Ashley walked over to the last crate and put the gun on the very top, shutting the container. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“No, of course not,” Bucky said with a small smile.
“What do you want from me?” she asked, leaning against the crate as she studied him. Unsurprisingly, he looked much better when his face wasn’t stained with his own blood. Instead, though, he was sticky with dried sweat from training, his uniform splotched with dirt and grass stains. Still, not a bad look in comparison.
For a moment, Bucky looked offended, but it shifted quickly enough to apologetic. “Nothing. I just…” He scratched the back of his neck, no longer the self-assured guy who’d walked beside her on that random fateful night. “I wanted you to know someone was on your side.”
“My side?” Her laughter was contained only in so far as she directed it to the ground. She looked back up at Bucky, feeling wise and cynical as all hell. “If I needed people on my side, I’d have joined the army.”
He stared at her. “I can’t really tell who you’re making fun of right now.”
“Everyone,” she said, a grin invading her features like a lovely parasite. “It’s my brand.”
She left him three voicemails and half a dozen texts, feeling like a spurned girlfriend. “Is Steve cheating on me?” she wondered aloud, voice dripping with dramatics. JARVIS answered for her. “In order to be cheating, Mr. Rogers would have to actually be involved with you in a romantic capacity.”
Ashley rolled her eyes. “Well, maybe we’re in a secret relationship. Did you ever think about that, Jarvis?”
“Admittedly, I have not,” the AI said matter-of-factly, as was his way.
It was hard to contain the smile piercing her features, but Ashley changed the subject. “Where exactly did Tony get to? I haven’t seen him all day.”
“Mr. Stark is currently in his lab working.”
“Is he now?” Ashley said, sounding blandly intrigued, but she couldn’t help her brow furrowing as she wondered what on earth he was doing there. In any case, she figured it wouldn’t hurt to find out. Untangling herself from the cocoon she’d made for herself on the couch, she threw the blankets back in their place and stuffed her phone in one of her lounge pants pockets. She made her way down to the lab, thanking herself for wearing the non-slip fuzzy socks as she walked down the slick tile stairs. “Tony?”
“I’m over here,” he said, his voice echoing through the lab, bouncing around like a sonic pinball.
“Real helpful, thanks,” she said, wandering around until she found him where she knew he’d be, standing in the center of the platform where he’d built every single Iron Man Mark, all the way up to 42 which, due to circumstances entirely in his control, were all destroyed. A fact which Ashley made fun of him for constantly, a multi-billion dollar fireworks show. “Whatcha working on?”
Tony looked up from his tinkering, setting down what appeared to be a mini blowtorch and the beginnings of some sort of device he definitely didn’t need. “Just messing around.” He grabbed a rag and wiped his hands on it. “What are you up to?”
“Movie night?” she asked, crossing her arms and giving him a perfected look of amused annoyance.
The realization that lit up his face proved his guilt. “Oh, right, that is a thing, huh?”
“Indeed,” Ashley said, staring him down.
He shrugged, walking over to her. “I’m sorry, kid. I got caught up in things,” Tony said, gesturing to the workspace.
Ashley made her way over to Tony’s computer, calling up the main controls with a retinal scan and a voice command. Within a minute, she had shut down the programs Tony had been playing with, all of it indicating evidence of a possible resurrection of the Iron Man mantle. “Yeah, I can see that,” Ashley said, scrolling through a few spec designs. They weren’t half-bad, either. “Is this what you’ve been doing all day?” she asked as she glanced at a particularly sleek model.
“Just playing around with a few ideas,” he said, glancing at the computer screen, leaning against the desk next to her. “Aren’t you and Cap supposed to be hanging out?”
She glowered at him as his body blocked the screen of what he was working on. As though she wasn’t aware. “I know what you’re doing. But, to briefly answer your question, yeah, we were supposed to --before movie night, of course-- but I think he probably got caught up with Shield stuff again. He hasn’t answered any of my texts. Or calls.”
“That a usual thing?” Tony asked absently as he cleaned up his workspace.
“No, but it happens.” Ashley projected less worry than she felt.
Tony appraised her, suddenly feeling a bit more like a parent than he had since this conversation started. Lately, it had been him worrying over the aftermath of the explosion that had nearly killed her, and he hadn’t the slightest clue how to handle it. Not to mention the powers that had showed up shortly after. They hadn't even really touched that one. But worrying about a friend who blew off plans was a little more in his realm of understanding, at least more so than cosmic energy absorption.
“I’m gonna order pizza,” he said, wiping off his hands and heading for the stairs. “What do you want, pepperoni? Pineapple? Anchovies?” She made a face at his last, lame suggestion, and Tony just smiled and said, "What movie we watching?"
“How about ‘The Princess Bride’?” Ashley asked, hiding how much she cared about the answer. Tony sighed heavily. He had nothing against the movie except for the number of times it played on his TV screens about ten years before, which ordinarily would have been enough to nix it. But Ashley added in a soft voice, “I’ll be in DC all next week. Please?”
Frozen for a solid second, considering more than just the question, Tony looked at his daughter, and something in her eyes told him it was impossible to say anything but yes. “Although, you could always cancel your working vacation. Plan a trip to Bali instead.”
Through nothing short of a minor miracle, he found himself abandoning his latest project and watching The Princess Bride, Ashley’s head on his shoulder, her eyes fluttering as she tried to stay awake in the dim lighting, a half-eaten box of pineapple pizza sprawled out precarious near her fuzzy sock-adorned feet. “You okay, kid?”
“Always,” she murmured, eyes now fully closed. “I’m just worried about Steve.”
He put an arm around her shoulder, pulling her closer to him like he used to do when she was a little kid full of nightmares. This time, she filled up the space completely, her body cool against him. When she was little, it was like having a mini space heater, and Tony wasn’t sure which version he preferred. Probably the one not the result of manipulation by a magical cosmic cube, but he didn’t want to pick favorites. “Yeah, kid, I know. He’ll be okay.”
She nodded into his shoulder, and a while later her phone buzzed in her pocket. Ashley jolted herself awake and fished the phone out, reading the text as Tony valiantly tried not to read the message, directing his eyes away from her hands. After Ashley started furiously typing back, he said, “I’m dying in suspense over here.”
Ashley stopped typing and looked over at him. “He told me nothing. Just that something’s come up and he’s really sorry.” Glancing at the TV screen, she smiled faintly. “‘I do not think that word means what you think it means.’” The quote just happened to be the next line in the movie, her tone and words matching near-perfectly with Inigo Montoya, but Tony couldn’t help but notice its relevance.
“I’m sorry, kid,” he said, pulling her closer against him. Ashley curled into his side like a kitten, small and sleepy.
She didn’t look at him, her eyes locked on the screen like a wonder-filled child. “I’m fine.”
Howard stared at her with a look equal parts annoyance, amusement, and anger. Quite the trifecta, Ashley thought. Around them, the other lab workers pretended to be productive while they listened in on the most interesting conversation they’d probably heard since the last time Howard and Ashley fought in their presence. “You realize the colonel demanded you be fired, right?”
Ashley nodded solemnly, putting her hands behind her back like a soldier, ever the picture of a guilt-ridden teenager being scolded by her father. She fought back a smirk. “I never meant for this to happen.”
The scowl on his face transformed his features into something like a gargoyle’s, comically ugly, vaguely teasing. “Like hell you didn’t.”
“Should I pack my things, then?” Ashley asked, her eyes as wide as she could make them, now projecting pure innocence.
Howard took a deep breath, expelling all traces of anger from the trifecta. “You’re impossible. I’m supposed to be mad at you. I told the poor guy I’d do at least that much, since I refused to fire my right-hand man.” He smirked at her. “Woman, I guess.”
“Did he quit?” she asked, sounding more hopeful than she meant to.
He shook his head at her, amused. “No, but he’s refusing to use the prototypes. Says he doesn’t want his men getting killed by faulty weaponry. His regiment’s leaving first thing tomorrow for the front lines.”
Her eyes widened of their own accord. “Without the guns?”
“Eh, in theory. But they’ll be stationed there for anyone who wants them, so I wouldn’t be too worried. Who doesn’t want the bigger, better gun?” Howard said with a shrug.
Ashley barely heard anything he said. “Right,” she said, trailing off in thought. “I’m taking the day off.”
Howard laughed. “Are you now?”
“Take one of my sick days,” she said as she waltzed out the door, throwing her lab coat on a hook and grabbing her dark red one on the way up.
She really wasn’t sure where to find him but figured the best place to look would be the bar. Nothing like liquid courage to take the edge off of flying out to wherever the hell in the morning. Italy, probably. Ashley supposed it didn’t much matter, and in any case continued pushing her way through the crowded bar, looking for the familiar face. Finding him sitting on a barstool sipping pointless at some form of poison, seemingly -surprisingly- alone, she walked over to Bucky, leaning against the table beside like a film noir dame.
“Come here often, soldier?” she asked in a bored drawl.
Bucky turned to her, a smile spreading on his face like wildfire. “Hey. Should I, uh, be protecting my face, or have you gotten that out of your system?”
She smiled wryly. “You’re hysterical. You should do stand up.”
“Yeah, that’s more of a backup plan in case this whole ‘army’ thing doesn’t work out,” he said, waving a hand around the bar.
Her eyes met his, warm and bright. “Well, let’s hope that it does.”
He leaned back in his seat, taking a sip of his drink. “Can I get you anything?” he asked, nodding his head toward the bar.
Ashley shook her head. “I don’t drink, unfortunately.”
“In this line of work, that is unfortunate,” he said, downing the rest of his drink before turning his attention back to her. “So if you didn’t come here for the beer, then can I ask why you’re here?”
Behind them, a group of soldiers were circled around a piano, one of them tapping out showtunes while the others sang along, off-key and loud. Ashley turned and started laughing. Bucky watched her, grinning. “God, they’re terrible,” she said to him, still smiling brightly. It was the most unguarded he ever saw her.
“Yeah, they’re just blowing off steam. We’re all leaving tomorrow.” He said it off-handedly, easily, but Ashley could read between the lines. She stood up straighter, turning back to the bar, and Bucky followed her movement, spinning around in his chair and waving at the bartender for another drink.
“I know. Howard told me. It’s why I came, actually.”
“Come to see us all off?” he asked, watching his glass being refilled with amber liquid. Based on the smell, Ashley figured malt whiskey.
“It’s my fault you’re getting shipped out early,” she said quietly. Bucky strained to hear her amidst all the singing and chatter, but he got the gist.
He put on a brilliant smile. “Nah, you did us all a favor. Colonel needed to be reminded he’s nothing special. I mean, it’s not like you actually punched him.” Bucky gave her a knowing look, and she scoffed as means of hiding her amusement.
“You’re really gonna hold that against me? It was a freak accident.”
Now it was his turn to scoff. “Oh, really? One broken nose, maybe. But two, that’s not a coincidence. It’s a pattern of violence.”
She bit back a smile. “I did not break your nose,” she said firmly. Then, “Did I?”
His broad smile faded into something softer, like a shift from sun to starlight. “No. I’m alright. Honest.” There was a deep pause, and Bucky added, “You really did get back at the colonel, though, didn’t you? Took a while, but it was worth it.”
Ashley tilted her head at him, studying him like a new book, curious of its unknown nature. “I didn’t realize you were so invested,” she said. “You know, I didn’t even remember it until you brought it up. I’m surprised that you did.”
For a moment, his easy smile faltered, but Bucky recovered quickly enough. He met her eyes and said, “You were kind of hard to miss.”
Raising an eyebrow at him, she fought back the urge to wrinkle her nose at him, “Does that line work on most girls?”
His eyes lit up as he shook his head slowly, breathing out some semblance of a laugh. “Not really, no.”
He watched her almost apologetically, waiting for her response as he took another swig of his drink. Without thinking, Ashley wrapped an arm through Bucky’s and started to pull him out of his seat. “Whoa, doll. Where are we going?”
“Come on,” she said, pulling harder against him, though still gently enough to give him an out. Bucky grabbed his drink with his free hand and gulped it down, then pulled a note from his wallet and slid it onto the table just before Ashley got him away from it, her thick coat dampening the warmth of her body against his. “And don’t call me that.” Small mercies, Bucky thought, as he was guided through the bar toward the exit. He’d never been in love before, but he had a feeling that this was a straight shot down a path of no return.
When Ashley got to DC, she tried her damndest to do what she said she would, getting work done, making headway on her sustainable energy project, etc., etc. She sent out a couple of texts to Steve once she got to her room, this event following numerous boring meetings and an hour of silent, actual working in between said meetings, and after he didn’t answer immediately, she waited approximately three whole hours of unresponsiveness to allow herself to get worked up.
Her room, which thanks to her lack of guilt over using the expense card Tony had given her was rather large, suddenly felt like the size a breadbox to her, the air stifled and stagnant as she tried to ignore the gut feeling telling her to worry. Eventually, she couldn’t take it, and she dug out her laptop and hacked her way into a full-blown panic. She dug out her phone, fingers twitching over the screen with purpose.
The instant the phone picked up and Steve didn’t sound like he was dying or just plain dead, Ashley said, “You know, I’d feel guiltier about hacking the location tracker on your phone if you weren’t currently located at the hospital, Steve.”
He sighed. “Ash, I’m sorry.”
“I’m in DC for one day and you’re already screwing shit up.”
“I was going to call you.”
“Too bad I beat you to it,” she said wryly. When he didn’t respond with anything more than silent brooding, she added, “What’s going on?”
She could practically see Steve slumping into a hospital chair, exhausted beyond his years, the whole century of them. “Fury’s dead, Ash. Someone shot him in my apartment last night.”
Without meaning to, she brought her hand up to her chest, covering her heart like she could shield it. In truth, she probably could, but it would do nothing to stop the air from being sucked from her chest and into the void.
It wasn’t that she was heartbroken –she and Fury had never been on great terms, and for good reason – but he was a background fixture in her life, the symbol of a symbol so seemingly permanent that to lose either was to require a paradigm shift she was in no shape to make. “Holy shit. Are you okay?”
“No, not really,” he said, voice strained as though it had been wrung out like wet clothes. “Look, Ash, I gotta go. I need to… process stuff.”
“Steve,” Ashley said, harder than she meant to. She took a breath. “You don’t have to tell me, but if you need help, I’ve got you. Okay?”
“Yeah, Ash, I know. I know. Just give me some time. I’ll text you,” he said, already sounding distracted. “Bye.”
She wasn’t sure if she said her farewell before being cut off by the click of the call ending. At first, Ashley distracted herself with reading, but she finished the book too quickly, now even more dissatisfied because of its horridly-written ending. TV and movies just didn’t do it for her, work was out of the question, she couldn’t focus on anything important, and the hotel room was spotless. No stress-cleaning for her.
Put-out, concerned, and ultimately too curious for her own good, Ashley found her computer and ran from her room to a coffee shop down the street.
Once she made it to the coffee shop, shifting the energy around her to project a forgettable aura to all the patrons and baristas, she ordered some form of caffeine she wouldn’t find strong enough no matter what and sat down at an empty table, pulling out her laptop like all the other people in the shop.
She hooked up to the house Wi-Fi, bless the place, and started typing, praying that her back door into Shield’s mainframe wasn’t found just yet. It was only a matter of time, it always was, but she really didn’t feel like carving a new path for herself on today of all days.
Within a matter of minutes, she was in the system, though that only helped if she knew what she was looking for. Project Insight didn’t have any files she hadn’t already copied, and even looking at the name now made her brain tighten, warning her of an impending headache.
She moved on to Fury, found that his file was ridiculously protected, the encryptions to get to the information were near-impossible and would take hours and more than a shitty café Wi-Fi connection to get past. “Steve Rogers,” on the other hand, was a much more accessible file, and, promising herself she was only trying to help, she started reading.
To her surprise, there wasn’t much in the file that she didn’t already know. General information about Steve’s life in the 40s, how he became Captain America and took out Hydra with his Howling Commandos. In fact, nearly all of the information about the 40s she’d learned in grade school, along with all the other kids being taught about American heroics in WWII.
The more current mission reports were nothing particularly interesting –Ashley had gotten more detailed info out of Steve. Ashley realized that there was no possible way this thing was the real deal. It never even mentioned the Tesseract or any of the other stuff Ashley probably wasn’t supposed to know about - she was too good at sussing out secrets for anybody’s good.
She thought about deleting the phony file but figured it was more important to leave as little a trail as possible than to act out of spite. Digging around some more, very nearly getting kicked out of the system by her initial brute-force approach, Ashley eventually found the real file.
“Eureka!” she shouted, and people nearby turned to look at her, her aura manipulation weakened by her lack of focus. She smiled sheepishly as she reformed the bubble of anonymity around her. “I finished my latest chapter.”
Nosy fellow patrons dismissed, Ashley looked through her friend’s personnel file, only to find out that Steve Rogers, as of less than an hour ago, was no longer Shield personnel. Ashley copied the file and saved it for later, getting out of the Shield system as fast as humanly possible. She threw her laptop into her bag and ran out the door, dialing Steve’s number as she ran back to the hotel parking garage to get her damn car.
His phone went to voicemail, and Ashley dialed again, sprinting at this point. The phone continued to refuse her calls, so Ashley kept calling, reaching her car, phone hooking up to the system as she peeled out of the garage.
“Jarvis, where’s Steve?” she asked, not really sure where she was driving to, exactly, but DC was, like the finest cities, a massive grid, so at least she was undoubtedly moving toward something.
“Based on his last location, he seems to be leaving Roosevelt Island, heading east,” the AI supplied.
“Fan-fucking-tastic,” Ashley said, pressing on the gas as she rerouted herself in the proper direction. “Keep trying to patch me through.”
A few minutes later, Steve’s voice rang through the car like a church bell. “Kind of busy, Ash.” His voice was muffled by interference of the windy variety, and Ashley shook her head out of habit.
“Are you really using your phone on the motorcycle again?” she asked, though even as she said it, Ashley figured this probably wasn’t the hill she wanted to die on.
“Ashley,” Steve said, exasperated.
“Shield’s declared you a fugitive and they’re trying to kill you,” Ashley explained, doing her best to stay on task, but she’d told him a million times. She supposed the risk was better than him not answering her assault of calls, but still.
Ashley caught Steve’s huff of laughter despite the blasting wind. “You don’t say.”
“What the hell did you do?” she asked, now driving in the direction of the Island, but no longer sure if that was helpful.
She could almost hear him glowering. “Ash, I’ll explain everything I know, just… meet me at the nearest hospital, okay?”
“Okay,” she said. Then, “Steve?”
“Yeah?” he said, clearly needing to be free of the distractions.
“You should probably ditch the phone.”
Bucky had already guessed that wherever Ashley was taking him wasn’t any typical locale for young couples under the moonlight. Much as he might have felt some sort of connection between them, this was the second time they’d met, and she barely remembered the first.
Still, he would have followed her pretty much anywhere, but he was surprised when he ended up back at the training grounds. Not exactly what he was expecting, though upon further reflection, Bucky didn’t really know if he’d expected anything particular at all.
“Should I drop and give you twenty?” he said with a smile, then thought about his statement more and was glad for the dim lighting that hid the blood creeping up his neck.
He couldn’t quite see, but it was a safe bet to assume she was giving him a wry smile. “Not just yet. We’ll see how the night goes.” Ashley found the range electrical system and powered it on, blinking furiously at the sudden onslaught of light.
“‘Let there be light,’” Bucky said, holding his arms out like he was standing in the rain.
“Yeah, yeah, whatever, Jesus,” she said, fishing a gun out of the crates.
Shifting his arms to a surrender position, Bucky started, “You know, if this is an elaborate murder attempt, I’ve gotta say, there were easier ways.” She tossed the gun at him, which he caught smoothly, though he fumbled to get it into a comfortable position. “Ah, yes, the infamous bucking bronco of a gun.”
“‘Bucking bronco’? Were you a cowboy before you were a soldier?” Ashley said, walking over so that she was only a few feet in front of him, her arms crossed as she appraised. him, looking like an army officer instead of a scientist.
“No, ma’am. Just had family out west,” he said, annoyingly formal.
She grimaced. “What am I, your grandmother? Don’t call me ma’am.”
“Can’t call you ‘ma’am’ or ‘doll,’ what am I left with?” he asked. More seriously, he motioned with his gun. “So is there a reason why you brought me here in the middle of the night, or am I really about to get murdered?”
Ashley pointed at the gun. “You need to learn how to use it.”
“You already gave that demonstration, remember?” he said, brow furrowing.
“I need to know you can use it. They’ll be there, wherever you’re sent, and they’re the best weapons you’ll get.” She willed him to understand her without pressing farther, and either her mental powers were somehow within her intimate control or he was smart enough to read between the lines, but Bucky just nodded and aimed the gun.
“Like this? You said we needed to—”
Ashley stepped closer to him. “No, look, it’ll feel better if you hold it like this.” She put one of her hands on his and adjusted his grip, and with the other moved his elbow to give him better support. “That’ll lessen the recoil enough that you can control it instead of letting it control you.” She nodded at him. “Go ahead.”
Bucky aimed the gun at one of the targets and fired. The shots landed perfectly in the center, ringing through the compound like a gong. Ashley winced, but looked generally pleased. “That’s the idea,” she said. “Feel good?”
“Yeah. Yeah, I think I got it,” he said, looking at the gun in his hands. Quickly, Ashley reminded him how to switch between the gun’s settings, stopping on the police baton when he questioned it.
“It’s funny but, for all of my work with Howard in making guns and stuff, I actually hate them. If I were ever in an actual fight, I’d want to use…” she trailed off and shrugged. “Well.”
“Okay, now you’ve got to tell me,” Bucky said as he put the gun back in its crate.
Ashley smiled faintly, amused at herself. “I’m an experienced swordsman.”
He made an earnest effort, but Bucky couldn’t contain his amazement. And entertainment. “Swords? Are you serious?” She nodded, taking it all in graciously, even as he laughed. “I’m sorry, it’s just… are you a ninja or something?”
“Or something,” Ashley said with a laugh.
“A real-life ninja,” Bucky said as he rested on the guardrail, sounding awestruck. “Cross that off the bucket list.” She followed him over to the guardrail, going so far as to leap up on it so she was sitting on the highest rung right beside him. “Are you a real person?” Bucky asked, staring up at the sky.
She let out a breath, watching the puff of mist dissipate in the air. “As far as I know.”
“You make weapons, you know how to fight --with swords-- and you work with Howard Stark. The Howard Stark. Guy’s a legend. You know, I went to one of his expos once, amazing stuff…” He trailed off, tried again. “My point is, thanks. For, you know, teaching me.”
“Ah, the least I can do for assaulting you that first time,” Ashley said, bumping her shoulder against his. “But, you know, I figured maybe if I taught you, you could teach others. Maybe they’d listen to you.”
Bucky looked away from his stargazing to turn to Ashley, stepping away from his comfy spot against the railing to face her, only a foot or so apart. It felt like nothing. “I’ll do my best.”
She nodded slowly, putting her hands on his shoulders, guiding him toward her, the gap between them electrified, which was the only explanation for why Ashley’s hands brought Bucky to her, pressing his body against hers as she kissed him, hard.
Though shocked for a moment, Bucky’s hands quickly found their way to the small of her back and into her hair, respectively, as Bucky shifted his body to get a better angle for Ashley to kiss him. Her arms wrapped around his neck like a scarf, soft and warm, and they stayed like that for a small eternity.
Eventually, too soon, Ashley unwound her arms and put her hands on Bucky’s chest, willing him away gently. He let her go, hands lingering on her shoulders for just a moment. Ashley smiled softly up at him, leaned so her lips were flush against his ear. “See that you do, soldier.”
She pecked him on the cheek and walked off into the night, with Bucky too stunned to say anything until she had disappeared under the moonlight.
As with most people following personal experience, and even some without, Ashley hated hospitals with a burning passion. The moment she stepped inside, she felt like her body was sticky with antiseptic, as though it was clinging to her like cobwebs as she walked down the stark white corridors, watching patients in various stages of death going by in a rush to get to the end.
She endured an elevator ride next to a patient and doctor duo, one of them sucking air out of an oxygen tank like it was a Slurpee. Ashley squeezed her eyes shut and the doors opened after a pause that was suffocating. It wasn’t possible to get out of there fast enough.
Once she was out, Ashley breathed carefully down three random hallways until she saw Steve inside an otherwise empty room, except for the woman he was talking to in a low voice. Curious, she walked in and saw that it was Natasha, glaring at Steve with a look that could kill, pulling her shirt up just enough to show a bullet scar on the side of her stomach.
“Hope I’m not interrupting,” Ashley said. Natasha smiled thinly at her as Steve whipped around to see her, blush creeping up his cheeks like he was a 12-year-old who got caught holding hands with his first crush, not quite fitting the stern look on his features, but close enough. She smiled, raising an eyebrow at him. “Actually, now I kind of do.”
His face dropped into his typical annoyed half-frown. “Really?”
Ashley nodded her head toward the USB drive in Natasha’s hand. “What’s that?”
“A USB drive,” Nat said innocently, tilting her head and batting her eyes like a schoolgirl. Somehow the look was unconvincing. She added, “Cap here won’t tell me what’s on it.”
With a flick of her hand, the drive jumped into Ashley’s ready palm, the space between the two points collapsing for the moment it took Ashley to wrap her fingers around the drive and study it. Space snapped back into place with a pop of Ashley’s ears. “Well that is interesting. Isn’t that interesting, Steve?”
“Can we focus?” he asked, heavy on the exasperation. Ashley ignored him in favor of studying the massive drive, admiring the extra work that went in to make it look pretentious and bloated like its probable original owner.
“So this is Shield’s, I assume?” she said. The silence answered her question. Ashley sighed. “The second I plug it in, their stupid tracking system will activate, and the fugitive in the room is gonna be royally screwed.”
Steve gave her another hard look, then sighed and put his hands in his jacket pockets, looking around like he wanted to be anywhere but there. It wasn’t hard for Ashley to relate. “Any suggestions?” he asked.
Ashley smirked at him thinly. “Sure, once you tell me what the hell is going on.” Her amused tone quickly switched to a frustrated demand. While Steve looked incredibly tired at the request, Natasha seemed to take it in stride. At the very least, she was obviously entertained.
“You ever hear of the Winter Soldier?” she asked, catching Steve’s eye before beginning her narrative.
Jumping into a fairy tale story of espionage and political intrigue while still managing to avoid any truly concrete details, as was her way, Ashley began to understand the severity of the situation. This man killed Fury, and he was after Steve. Along with the entirety of Shield. “Well this is just fantastic.”
Steve scoffed. “Got any suggestions? I’m all ears.”
Twirling the drive in her hand like a knife trick, she considered. Suddenly, she pulled the drive back into her closed hand and shoved it in her pocket. “Of course. We’re going to the mall.”
As she started for the door, Steve followed behind her reluctantly, Natasha trailing behind him, popping bubbles of gum the whole way. He kept his head low, sweatshirt hood now pulled tightly over his head, completely and utterly subtle, especially with his two mismatched companions. “Why?” he asked in a low tone.
Ashley looked back at him as she pressed the elevator buttons, giving him an obvious and almost accusatory once-over. “Well first of all, you need a change of clothes. You look like an undercover cop. And a shitty one at that.”
Behind her, Natasha snorted. “She’s not wrong.”
The doors dinged open, and a man clutching an IV like a cane trudged off the elevator, paying them no mind, probably blitzed by morphine drip. Ashley gave him a wide berth, nearly tumbling into Steve, before walking on like nothing had happened. “We probably should have taken the stairs,” Natasha said.
Steve met Ashley’s eyes, but she just shook her head. Once they were in the parking lot, Ashley took her first breath in what felt like months. Her car was right where she left it, a black SUV that screamed inconspicuous. Steve naturally didn’t just call shotgun but tried to take Ashley’s keys. She smacked his hand away. “You don’t exactly have a great track record with not destroying shit, my friend.”
He glowered at her, but there was no argument to be had. It was Ashley’s (rental) car, and the record spoke for itself. She tossed the keys to Natasha, who cocked her head at Steve smugly before getting in the car. Ashley, who was a child at heart, ran to the front passenger seat so she’d beat Steve, who just let it happen. “Taking all the hits today,” he said, smiling ever so slightly.
“At least I didn’t shoot at you this time,” Ashley said as she buckled herself in, which almost never happened, but Natasha peeled out of the parking lot so quickly Ashley smelled rubber. “This is a rental!” she scolded, though not particularly caring. “Hand me my laptop,” she told Steve, pointing next to him in the general direction where her bag had been haphazardly thrown in her rush to find him.
“Yeah, Shield made up for it, don’t worry.” He rifled around a bunch of files and some of Ashley’s clothes before saying, “I can’t find it.”
“Oh for the love of everything,” Ashley muttered, unbuckling and maneuvering herself gracelessly into the back seat, limbs nearly smacking into Steve multiple times. She half-smiled at him after lifting up a stack of papers on the floor that hid the laptop underneath. When she booted up the laptop and pulled out the USB, Natasha stiffened. “What the hell are you doing?” she asked. “Do you want Shield to come and kill us all?”
Ashley looked at her in the mirror wryly. “It’d be fun to see them try.” Turning serious, she said, “Look, I’m used to Shield’s stupid security protocol. My laptop’s already programmed to take out the location measures before they even start.”
Plugging in the USB, with Steve watching over her shoulder like a nosy manager, Ashley waited as her protocol deactivated the security measures. Once that was done, she began typing furiously, but after a few minutes, groaned in frustration. “Whatever Fury gave you is Alpha-level secret shit, and the shitty hotspot in this car certainly isn’t helping things. Assuming I can even do it off-site, this will take me weeks to crack everything.”
“Well, we don’t have weeks,” Steve said, then sighed when she gave him a classic ‘no-shit’ look. “Is there anything on the drive you can use?”
“File-wise, not really. But…” she silenced herself for a moment, working furiously.
“Can you isolate where the files on the drive came from?” Natasha asked, looking up at them through the mirror.
Ashley nodded absently. “Mm-hmm. Give me a minute.” They did, and without warning, Ashley whooped, pointing to the screen for Steve’s benefit. “Cancel the shopping trip, guys. We’re going to Jersey.” After a second, she grimaced. “Jersey.”
Like everyone else with eyes, Ashley had seen the films depicting the theatrical heroics of “Captain America: the world’s first superhero.” She’d let Howard take her out to see one of them and found herself besieged by red-white-and-blue fever of all shapes and sizes, whether thin rectangles of trading cards or the ambiguously-humanoid attempts at action figures of the star-spangled man.
Steering past the merchandise, the pair found their seats and waited for the picture to start, but Ashley watched the real show unfold as children poured in with plastic men and souvenir cups in hand.
The picture ended with Captain America and his band of situationally-brave actors defeating an entire army with no more than a few horribly-faked punches and some gunfire. Ashley stormed out of the theater as soon as the lights flicked on, ignoring Howard’s protests behind her. She spilled out of the doors of the theater, sucking in the cool fresh air like she’d been drowning, resting the back of her head against the theater wall.
“Ashley, you all right?” a voice said behind her. Howard was nothing if not the picture of a gentleman. He waited patiently while Ashley composed herself to respond.
Without warning, she took his arm and marched off into the street, unsure of where they were going next, but not much caring. After a while, she asked, “Do you think Captain America ever feels wasted, paraded around the country like a hero while ordinary people are giving their lives on the other side of the world?”
Howard didn’t miss a beat –he hardly ever did. “Do you?”
The silence between them contrasted nicely with the sounds of city nightlife. “Everyone does, I guess. At some point in their lives.”
“No,” Howard said, voice far too quiet for the crowded London street; Ashley had to ask him to repeat his words. “No, they don’t.”
She appreciated Howard Stark more than she would ever let on –his ego was already far too big for his own good– not just because he took a chance and hired her but because he didn’t see it that way.
He was kind enough not to let the fact that she essentially tracked him down and confronted him with an unsolicited job proposition in the middle of a bar overtly influence his final decision. In his own words, “You’re one of the most driven people I’ve ever met. Only an idiot wouldn’t hire you, and I’m no idiot.”
When she asked him about it later -after she’d figured out he’d make a decent friend, too, and responded accordingly- he chalked it up to the killer red dress. “You were too lovely to say ‘no’ to.”
She shoulder checked him for that, but he laughed it off, like he did everything else. Ashley wondered if he knew at the time the consequences that would stem from what was essentially a whim. On darker days, she wondered if he regretted it.
“He’s a good guy,” Howard said, drawing Ashley back from her spiraling thoughts. “Steve Rogers, I mean.”
Ashley smirked. “You know, sometimes I forget that you met him. You only mention it every other day.”
Stark glowered at her, though there was mirth hidden behind the expression. “I didn’t just meet him. I helped make him. One of my greatest creations.”
“Cocky bastard. If you’re really so buddy-buddy with Captain America, how come I haven’t gotten to see him yet? All I’ve gotten is a terribly-made movie.”
He rolled his eyes. “You know he’s coming to the camp in a couple of weeks, right? Part of his military tour to ‘boost morale.’”
“I’m dying of anticipation,” Ashley said. A blast of wind made Ashley tense from the cold, and no sooner had she succumbed to shivering than Howard was readying himself to offer her his jacket. She put a hand on his chest to stop him. “Absolutely not.”
“Ash, come on. It’s just a jacket, and you’re freezing.”
Her teeth were chattering. “I’m perfectly fine.”
Howard clearly wanted to protest, but he just sighed, and they continued their walk. Eventually they ended up back at Ashley’s apartment, and he smirked as he stood outside the building door. “You know…”
“I would rather jump naked into the Thames,” she said, deadpan.
He scratched the back of his neck. “You know, one of these days, you’re gonna have to give up the invincible woman act and admit that you are only human.”
The door clicked as she fiddled with the key, and she pushed it opened, stepping forward to hover on the threshold. She began to unravel her scarf to hang it on the wall. “I’ll do that as soon as it stops being necessary.”
“Maybe Captain America will be your knight-in-shining armor,” Howard said, smiling like a little boy who knows he’s an evil bastard. Not too far from the truth.
Ashley balled up the scarf and threw it at him, and it smacked his face with lazy precision. “Good night, Howard.”
The first half of the car ride is spent strategizing, Ashley believed, because whatever was going on, she found it too boring to stay awake, using Steve’s shoulder as a pillow. Complaining that it was too hard, she grabbed a spare sweatshirt from the car floor and balled it up, pressing that on Steve’s shoulder -the owner of which just rolled his eyes and accepted it- achieving a state of semi-consciousness while Natasha decided to start a conversation with the man of the hour. Ashley missed most of it, but occasionally tuned in for parts she found interesting, mostly the ones pertaining to her.
“You two seem really close,” Nat remarked. There was a question there, but Steve -if he actually heard it, which was debatable- swiftly shut it down.
“She’s good people,” Steve said, looking down at her with fondness. She stirred in her half-sleep, and Steve shifted lower in his seat. Ashley settled down against him, pressing her head into his thinly-shielded shoulder. “We’ve been friends for a long time.”
Natasha smiled, looking back at him while somehow staying perfectly straight on the road. “Since New York?”
“Something like that,” Steve said. Ashley began to drift more deeply after that, and somehow she found herself in an empty prison cell, the iron bars burning to the touch as Ashley gripped them tighter.
The room started to fill with smoke, that smelled of rubber, thick as gauze while she clawed away at it, but the more she fought, the more her hands burned, heavy with pain. Looking down at her right hand, she saw that one had been stabbed through with a knife. She drew back her hand to examine it, studied the handle protruding from the back, the excess blade hanging from her palm like a waiting pendulum. Her blood dripped on the floor as she swung her knifed hand around wildly, trying to cut through the gauzy smoke.
Through the darkness, she heard voices mixing together, far but loud. She started slicing in its direction, and she managed to cut a long rip in the veil of smoke, bright sterile light bursting through the crack. The moment she passed through it, she was staring at Steve, who was gripping her shoulders tightly either for support or protection, in a car bound for Jersey instead an undefined room of smoke. An improvement already.
“Well that was fun,” she said dryly, clamping her teeth together and taking in a deep breath. Steve watched her carefully but loosened his grip on her significantly now that she was aware of herself.
“Does this happen often?” he asked, sounding like a schoolteacher preparing for a lecture on cleaning up toys or sharing snacks.
Ashley scoffed, still deadpanning the entire incident. “You know it does.”
Natasha glanced sideways in the mirror. “I think he meant the flailing around trying to kill him thing, not the nightmare.” Steve was still watching Ashley with the concerned look that made her either want to slap it off his face or hug him until it went away. She could never decide.
Before she could really work up the energy to say anything else, snarky or otherwise, Natasha interrupted. “Looks like we’re here.”
The car rolled to a stop, and Ashley jolted forward at the final give of the brakes, then sought her escape.
“Hooray for Jersey,” she said, hopping out of the car and nearly face-planting on the ground, throwing her arms out for balance and everything. Steve caught her arm and steadied her, asking if she was alright. Ashley smiled at him, self-amused. “My legs fell asleep. How lame is that?”
He didn’t seem quite as convinced, staring at the barren landscape of what appeared to be an abandoned military compound. “Maybe you should sit this one out, Ash.”
She ignored the suggestion and said, “What is this place?”
“This is where I came from.” It sounded more dramatic than it needed to be, so Ashley just nodded, bumping Steve on the shoulder before leading the charge inside, pulling him from his reverie. He followed her, along with Natasha, who was studying his reaction like he was a lab rat. He met her eyes once, but she didn’t say a word.
Though Ashley managed to stay the tip of their odd little triangle, Steve was the one who found the misplaced building. "This building's in the wrong place," he'd said.
They all walked over to it, a perfect trio of a team. Still Steve suggested, as he pulled open the doors of the armory with annoying strength, that Ashley should maybe wait in the car. “I’m not your delinquent child, Rogers,” she said, storming in ahead of him.
As he stepped into the secret storage room -based on the filing cabinets, desks and other classic office equipment, it was easy to draw sound conclusions- he seemed unsurprised to see Ashley having forgotten their fledgling fight in favor of gravitating toward the three pictures on the wall. One of Agent Carter, another Howard Stark, and the last one Colonel Phillips.
She stared at the one in the center, a dull headache squeezing her brain like a vice. “He looks just like Tony. Smug and self-righteous.”
Steve came up behind her, smiling faintly. “He was a good man.”
“So's Tony,” she said, readying for a quip, then squeezed her eyes shut as her headache surged for a moment. There was a pulse of vibrant blue behind her eyelids, but a second later, she recovered, headache back to dull throbbing.
“Who’s the girl?” Natasha asked. Steve met Ashley’s eyes, and she wasn’t sure if it was because he saw her episode or the question. In any case, he said nothing and proceeded to find a secret elevator behind, of all obvious things, a bookshelf.
“It’s like they aren’t even trying to be original,” Ashley said as Steve pulled the door open with much less effort than it should have required, and the three of them filed inside.
The room wasn’t so much a room as an excavation site for a computer system that was essentially an electronic dinosaur fossil. Every inch of the room was crammed with age-old tech, spanning half the length of a football field and yet still having probably less storage space than the flash drive in Ashley’s pocket. With that same drive in mind, however, she spotted a USB port below a row of monitors.
“This can’t be the data point, this technology is ancient,” Natasha said, running her hand down an especially dusty row of computers.
“It’s like a porn addict’s basement,” Ashley replied dryly, staring at the tech as she plugged in the drive. The computer sputtered to life like a drowning victim, spitting out lines of code instead of water. “Initiate system,” it asked in bright green letters. Ashley rolled her eyes, already bored. “This looks like a ‘you’ thing, Nat.”
Natasha shrugged and sat down at the desk, typing yes while looking at Ashley, pretending that it was the hardest thing in the world. Ashley glared at her, pursing her lips at the mocking. “Shall we play a game?” she asked in a voice that reminded Ashley of the ghost people in the old Scooby cartoons. “It’s from a movie that…”
“I know. I’ve seen it,” Steve said.
“But you haven’t seen Star Trek,” Ashley muttered, shaking her head. “Honestly.” Steve just sighed.
The computer trilled and said, in a voice reminiscent of stereotypical robot voice mixed with a malicious Furby, “Rogers, Steven. Born, 1918. Romanoff, Natalia Alianovna. Born, 1984. Ashley, Vivian Morgan. Born, 1989.”
Steve and Natasha looked at her, both questioning this brilliant and new information. “It’s a long story,” Ashley said with an uneven shrug, her hands clenched at her sides. Both had the decency not to ask.
The computer kept droning while Ashley pondered the ramifications of it knowing her name. An old camera tilted around on its rusty mount, zooming in on their three individual faces. Natasha and Steve started talking with a computer. Ashley, not finding this to be a particularly novel thing, and very much preferring Jarvis to this “Zola” character, finding him hard to look at to say the least, started wandering around, looking for something she wasn’t quite sure of.
There were a few stray files here and there, but they were all mission reports that didn’t seem significant, paperwork that never got filed, or personnel files for people dead or gone. Ashley rubbed at her temples as she searched, blinking away the black dots that shot into her vision every so often.
She picked up a file, stamped, of course, with an outdated Shield logo, its ink faded with unkempt age. Ashley flipped it open. A personnel file of a soldier, Private Jones, who Ashley recognized as one of Steve’s Howling Commandos. In the top righthand corner was a small picture of him, his face serious, though there was brightness in his eyes.
For a moment, she couldn’t look away, but her eyes started drifting from the paper, lazily heading toward the back of her head. Ashley snapped the folder shut and carried it over to where Steve and Natasha were arguing with the dinosaur tech. “That's impossible, Shield would have stopped you,” Nat said, full of conviction.
The computer, who chose the face of a bloated mouse of a man, seemed amused.
“Accidents will happen,” it said. Mercifully, the man’s face flicked away, but was instantly replaced with images, among other things, of Maria and Howard Stark, the word “terminated” stamped on the screen like it was nothing more than bureaucratic red tape. Fury’s face followed it, but Ashley only saw a glimpse of him before her vision started tunneling.
Her breaths, the ones she managed, were shallow and pained, more effort than they were worth. She focused on the computer, which was flashing pictures of international violence before returning to the weasel-man. She could only see about half the screen anyways. “HYDRA's new world order will arise. We won, Captain. Your death amounts to the same as your life; a zero sum.”
Without warning, Steve’s shield ripped through the air and buried itself in the monitor the AI had been occupying. After a moment, another screen flickered to life, reanimating the rodent corpse. “As I was saying...”
“What's on this drive?” Steve asked. He looked back at Ashley, who was staring at nothing and everything, the words of “Zola” echoing through her head like cymbals crashing right in her ear. Or maybe that was the blood rushing to her head, not that it mattered.
“Project Insight requires insight. So I wrote an algorithm.”
Putting a hand on her shoulder, Steve guided Ashley toward him, trying to snap her out of her trance. She blinked up at him, eyes wide like she was drugged, experiencing a second, silent childhood. “What kind of algorithm? What does it do?” Natasha asked, ignoring the scene to the left.
Zola was in his element by now. “The answer to your question is fascinating. Unfortunately, you shall be too dead to hear it.” Metal screeched behind them, and Steve threw his shield in the sound’s direction, but it bounced back with nothing more than a loud clank, having found no purchase between the elevator’s closing doors.
Natasha and Steve started talking, and based on the tone, it was a very important discussion. But Ashley heard nothing until the computer rang in her ears. “We are both of us… out of time.”
Steve turned to Ashley, calling her name, but Ashley just looked at her friend blankly. Seeing him there one moment, like she remembered him, the next Steve’s face covered was in ash and dried blood, wearing the uniform she recognized from history books, surrounded by burning trees and rubble in the distance behind him. He was shouting at her then, too.
By then her head had been cracked open by an anvil, screaming at her nerves to do something to stop this atrocity. Ashley could no longer see anything, real or otherwise, and felt the papers slip from her fingers, falling at the same time she collapsed, hearing nothing but chaos and the roar of blood as the world came to a fiery stop.
Her apartment was at the very least better than a refrigerator box, but other than that, there weren’t many things to say in its favor. Not that Ashley discounted that quality, mind you, because when she packed up her bags and left America without any more planning than a vague itinerary, being able to find a place to live on short notice for dirt cheap was nothing less than a miracle.
Her savings had plummeted to exactly nothing just before she had the luck of tracking down Howard and basically threw her phony resume in his face. It wasn’t like she didn’t have experience –her entire childhood was made up of covert fighting practice and reading engineering textbooks (an odd childhoood, she'd admit)—but none that would otherwise get her foot in the door for most respectable facilities, especially one with projects as sophisticated as Stark’s.
Working with him, sometimes she felt almost lucky she’d been able to study as much as she had over the years. Her self-imposed education had initially been nothing more than a way to pass the time while her father disappeared to projects he felt were important, leaving his daughter to fend for herself in more ways than one. But now, at least, her work was paying off, in one fashion or another.
Consumed by her thoughts, Ashley wandered through her routine of stumbling over to the fridge and finding a makeshift meal for herself. She opened the door only to be met with a pitiful display of a sliver of milk, some old lettuce, and a jar that perhaps once contained something edible. Ashley cursed to herself.
“You always were terrible at planning ahead,” a voice said from beside her, jarring in its casual tone.
While unhelpful in her previous dilemma, the gun taped to the inside of the fridge was released from its holding and deftly aimed at the intruder. Not so terrible after all. Ashley shielded herself behind the door, tensely waiting for the attack that hadn’t come. “Well that’s just hurtful,” the voice, decidedly male, said.
Though she vaguely recognized the voice, in the dim light of her shitty apartment, it took a moment for her eyes to focus on the facial features and recognize them as familiar. She’d seen them enough in front of a mirror. “What the hell are you doing here? Aren’t you supposed to be dead?”
“Not just yet. Soon enough, though, I figure,” he said, tilting his head as he stared at her, bemused. “Will you miss me?”
She gave him nothing more than a half-smile. “I’ll do my best.” After a beat, “I assume you didn’t come here just to scare me out of my skin.”
“Actually, I didn’t come here at all,” he said, his features pinched with apology.
Reaching out a hand to touch his cheek, she was unsurprised to find that it passed right through his body, her hand dampened with mist as his features briefly dissipated. She drew back her hand, and they reassembled neatly. “I was wondering how you’d gotten in. Where are you?”
His jaw shifted before he replied, “Austria.”
“Why the hell are you in Austria, you crazy bastard?” He glared at her word choice, and she rolled her eyes hard. “It’s like you’re asking to get yourself killed.”
The eyebrow he raised, sharp and dark, gave away his motives. “You’re one to talk. You’ve gone mad, working for a guy like Stark. And for the Brit Army, no less.”
Ashley felt her fists ball up at her sides. “I can handle myself, Arthur. I don't need your critique of my life choices.”
Anger flashed in his eyes, and perhaps a little bit of hurt. “Look, I didn’t come to argue. When I heard you were working with the Allies, I knew I had to warn you.”
She stayed silent, waiting for him to continue. “They’ve found it,” he said quietly.
The air had grown stale, and Ashley struggled to take it in. “Who’s ‘they’?”
Arthur looked down at the floor, suddenly transfixed. “Hydra.”
Howard had filled her in on the former Nazi subdivision almost as soon as she’d started working for him. They were monsters, fanatically devoted to their leader, Johann Schmidt, and his campaign to found a new race of super men. After he rejected the ideals of Hitler and detached himself from the Third Reich, Hydra itself began to flourish, now an equal threat to human freedom as the Nazi regime. “That’s… problematic.”
He nodded, then his head darted up, looking past her, presumably at something on his side of the projection. His eyes were wide when they refocused on her, and he sucked in a quick breath. “Ash, I’ve gotta go, okay, but you’ve gotta do something about this. No one else understands it like you do.” A bead of sweat ran down his forehead like a fat raindrop, eyes darting up, then meeting hers for one last moment. “I love you.”
His form shimmered and faded out of existence like a faulty mirage. She nodded to the empty room. “Don’t die.”
Sleep was no easy prey, and Ashley chased after it until the wee hours of the morning. Even after she managed to trap it, Ashley had to keep a firm hold on it or risk its escape, visions of ice and screams in darkness assaulting her all the while. Needless to say, the next morning she knew she would be far from cheerful.
Not that this was anything out of the ordinary.
It was hard not to recognize the smoky aftermath of a collapsed building. She’d been inside enough of them. The burning in her throat, the stinging eyes, sore muscles and burgeoning bruises – Ashley knew them all like old friends, the ones you leave behind in high school yet still manage to run into more often than you’d like. In this incarnation, however, she was in a cramped space, made worse by the bodies of Steve and Natasha far too close for comfort.
The only benefit to the proximity was that she could tell they were breathing. In fact, she saw Steve move above her, standing up to climb out of the hole he’d clearly thrown them in, pushing his shield up to expel the rubble that otherwise would have crushed them. “Steve?” Ashley coughed, then choked back a fit of hacking in favor of getting up.
Once she was vertical, she saw the bright oval warnings of incoming flashlights, just like Steve did. “Help me get her out,” he said, putting his shield on his back and lifting up an unconscious Natasha as Ashley climbed out of the ditch, taking Natasha from Steve as he jumped out of the hole in a smooth forward motion. She handed Natasha off to him, digging out her car keys as they ran quietly back the path they had come, lucky enough not to run into any Strike members on the way.
There was, however, one agent inching their way towards the exposed car, gun at the ready. Ashley and Steve saw them from behind, and with a single look and nod exchange, Ashley unhooked the shield from his back, magicked herself over to the would-be assassin with a faint ‘pop’, and tapped them on the shoulder. They whipped toward Ashley, gun still prone, but never got the chance to fire before Ashley slammed the shield into their head, sending them sprawling out on the ground.
Steve was already putting Natasha in the back seat of the car when Ashley jogged up, feeling refreshed from the easy win -there hadn’t been many, as of late- and tossed him his shield. “A million other ways I could have taken them out, but I gotta say, that one was pretty satisfying.”
As she hopped into the passenger’s seat, a victory which Steve accepted graciously as she tossed him the keys, he just said, “And the quietest.”
“Hey, I’m stealthy. I am the epitome of stealth,” she said as he rolled out of their hidden parking space and back onto the road. Steve just smiled. “Romanoff’s got nothing on me.”
“You wish, Stark,” Nat murmured from the back. Ashley snapped at her to go to sleep, which she did, probably too tired to argue. Nearly exploding can do that to a person.
For a good few minutes, the car is silent, the only sign of life being the other cars on the road and the occasional future roadkill. “Steve, what the hell happened to me in there?” she asked in a low voice, not wanting to wake Natasha but really not wanting her to hear.
Steve sighed. “I was hoping you could tell me. Ash, you were out of it.”
“I saw you,” she said, refusing to look anywhere but the road.
“Yeah, I had to drag you into the–“
She shook her head. “No, Steve, a different you. It was a vision. We were in the woods. A huge building had exploded.”
“Ash, you’re literally describing what just happened,” he said, concerned yet dismissive, but his body was tense, every movement tight and jerking, like he couldn’t quite remember how his muscles worked when he wasn’t lying.
“Why are you lying? Something’s happening to me, Steve,” she said, her voice rising in volume until she realized it, then quieted significantly to add, “You’re my friend.”
It wasn’t a question, but Steve answered it anyways, sounding tired. “Of course I am. Are you sure this isn’t just about, you know, the cube?”
Ashley let out a breath, clenching her jaw. “I know it’s about the cube, Steve. My question is why are you part of it.”
Steve said nothing, staring at the road like it was a contest against asphalt, and he refused to lose another. Ashley just gritted her teeth, tears forming in her eyes in both frustration and pain, the latter because her headache was coming back at full-force, primed to become a full-on migraine by the time they got wherever it was they were going.
She was too angry to ask nicely.
“I can’t tell you, Ash,” he said finally, his voice strained as he spoke at almost a whisper.
“Well, why the hell not?” she snapped, her head splitting again as she closed her eyes against another flash of light, the same fiery blue licking at her vision as she saw herself throwing a glass against the wall of a bar, glaring at Steve, who was standing in front of her in an old military uniform, decorated with a rainbow of pins, tears in his eyes matching the ones threatening to form in hers.
When the vision faded, her heart clawing at her chest and eyes burning, she could hear Steve calling her name, shouting it from across worlds. His hand was on her shoulder, holding it tightly as he tried to shake her awake.
Around them, Ashley’s things were floating and shaking violently in the air, from the stack of CDs to the packet of paperwork sitting at her feet, both of which smacked their respective surfaces loudly when Ashley regained control of herself. Steve was staring at her, eyes wide with concern, but she just jerked her shoulder away from him.
He pulled back his hand slowly. “Are you okay?”
She closed her eyes, leaning back against the headrest. By now, Natasha was just pretending to be asleep and listening in, but Ashley didn’t care. “Whatever’s happening to me, I hate it,” she said, holding out her hands and turning them back and forth as though that slight motion could explain what the hell was going on. “But you keeping secrets from me is worse, okay? Whatever you know, I have a right to.”
“I know,” he said lamely. “I’m sorry.”
Turning her head out to the window, she said, “No, you’re not.”
“Look, I don’t want to fight with you, Ash,” he said, not realizing the conversation was over.
Still not moving from her spot, suddenly feeling so incredibly tired, Ashley said, “Fine. We’re not fighting.”
For all of the things that Ashley Grey had witnessed in her lifetime, so many of them objectively horrifying, she had never actually seen a train wreck. However, she imagined that if you took a train hurtling off of its track toward an oil tank or the like and slowed the tragedy down to a gut-wrenching, snail-like speed, it would almost exactly match the imagery of Captain America standing in front of a bunch of battle-fatigued soldiers, wearing his bright red-white-and-blue getup trying to get them to smile. At the very least, the sentiment was the same.
Ashley leaned against a beam downstage, watching from the sidelines as the Captain stumbled over his lines after each joke or call to arms failed to land. She hadn’t cared to notice Howard come up beside her, leaning against the side of the beam perpendicular to her, smug bastard smirking all the while.
“Hello, Howard,” she said, not taking her eyes off the horrid performance, still finding it more pleasing than looking at her friend’s face. Captain America was now pleading with the crowd not to be assholes, though with much nicer phrasing. Naturally, he was promptly mooned.
“You know, it really is a shame that he’s being paraded around like some side show attraction. He’s capable of more than this,” he said, waving his hand toward the stage as the Captain blocked a tomato with his shield.
Glowering even as she refused to look at him, she said, “People have a tendency to compromise the moment that things get real. This is probably easier for him.”
Howard sighed, arrogant façade replaced with a frown and a crease in his brow. “Ash, you can’t be mad about this. The colonel demanded your resignation, I got you closer to the front lines instead. Isn’t that what you wanted? To help people?”
“I didn’t do anything wrong!” Ashley said, finally turning toward her boss so she could better yell at him.
He scoffed. “Ashley, all you ever do is try to piss people off. Tell me you didn’t plan that entire thing the moment the guy made a snide comment toward you.”
Ashley was silent for a moment, watching Captain America hurry off the stage as the showgirls scurried back on to do another number, eliciting cheers from the audience of repressed soldiers. “‘Plan’ isn’t necessarily the word I’d use,” she muttered, accepting defeat with nothing even close to grace.
“You have a problem with authority,” Howard said dryly. Before Ashley could turn on him, he gave her a disarming look. She paused briefly in readying her retort. “Look, just give this place a chance. You wanted to be near the action and now you are. Please?”
There really wasn’t more for her to say, much as she might have wanted an outlet to vent her frustration. Howard Stark was many things, but in this particular instance, he wasn’t wrong. She deflated. “I’ll do my best.”
Wandering off, not having any interest in a show without a decent plotline, she went behind the stage, hoping to avoid the crowds and people in general, walking along the path toward nowhere when she saw Captain America himself sitting with a sketchpad, drawing without purpose.
Ashley debated saying anything at all, but she stared too long as she did, and the Captain looked up and caught her. She sighed and said, “You’re the man of the hour.”
He closed the sketchpad, smiling faintly as he stared at the cover. “Doesn’t really feel like it.”
Stepping closer, now shielded from the potential rain by the tent she stood under, Ashley said, “I guess being hit with tomatoes doesn’t really inspire feelings of acceptance and belonging.”
Captain America laughed, not bitterly, just with a touch of resignation. “Yeah, I guess it doesn’t.” He held out his hand. “I’m Steve, by the way.”
She took his hand, unsurprised that their grips matched in strength. Steve didn’t seem to notice, thankfully. “I’m aware. Howard never shuts up about you. Goes on and on about how proud he is of his 'creation.'”
He looked slightly confused before he said, “You know Stark?”
Ashley made a face, something like a grimace, but with the added element of her biting her tongue to keep from saying something rude. “In some respects, I suppose he’s my boss.”
“And in others?” Steve asked.
She shrugged. “A decent friend. Sometimes, anyways.” Smirking, she added, “You know, he actually took me to see one of your movies, before we came here.”
It was a little hard to see in the poor lighting, but Ashley suspected she saw a blush burning the back of Steve’s neck. “Yeah? What did you think?”
“It was horrible. I barely got through to the end,” Ashley admitted, saying it all like a dam had burst.
Steve laughed, and she smiled with him. “Can’t say I don’t share your sentiment.”
“Sorry,” Ashley said.
He waved her off. “No, no, it’s alright. Feels like no one else here really wants to be honest with me, sometimes. They just cart me off to the next place and tell me I’m doing great.”
Her lips tugged upwards as she nodded. “Kind of feels like you could be doing more, huh?” When Steve agreed, she added, “I get that. I came here to try to ‘do more,’ whatever the hell that means,” Ashley said, shrugging. “Working in a lab just doesn’t always feel like the ‘doing more’ I had in mind, you know?”
“What do you want to be doing?” he asked.
“Ending the war,” she said with a sigh, and Steve smiled broadly at her, not like he was talking to a child, but like someone had said exactly what was on his mind.
From behind the curtains, someone called “Rogers.” The man in question sighed, stood up, and held out his hand to Ashley again, which she took graciously. “Well, let me know when you do, then I can stop wearing this awful costume.”
Ashley laughed. “Why? I think it suits you.”
Steve grinned at her as he said, “It chafes!”
He disappeared into the backstage, leaving Ashley surprisingly entertained, despite the horror show of a performance she’d half-endured a few minutes before.
Finding her way back to the lab, feeling inexplicably much more at peace with her own plight, Ashley started working, tinkering --not with anything Stark had asked her to do, of course, but rather on her own pet project. It was easy to lose herself in her work, stitching fabric and sharpening metal, taking careful measurements and remeasuring the places it mattered most.
She was almost done, having been working on her gear in secret since the 107th was deployed and Ashley found herself dragged kicking and screaming with Howard to an Italian base, where apparently –supposedly– their skills were needed more. Her consolation, or possibly the reason she’d been so upset, was that now she was that much closer to Austria. One hop over the border, piece of cake.
With that thought constantly in the back of her mind, Ashley kicked her preparation into high gear. Howard was aware that she was stealing his stuff, she’d told him so herself, but even he wasn’t privy to what she was making. In fact, it wasn’t until she put on the finishing touches, strapping dual swords to their sheaths made to rest on her back, stitching up the last part of the knife belt, that Howard actually saw what she was doing.
Of course, seeing and registering something’s existence were two very different things, as Howard Stark ran into the nearly-empty lab (he’d given everyone the day off in the name of Captain America’s arrival) and didn’t acknowledge Ashley’s presence in favor of rifling through his desk. Ashley raised an eyebrow at him while she tucked away her things, clearing her throat loudly. “Whatcha doing?”
He looked up like a startled racoon digging through a trashcan. “Nothing.”
Ashley rolled her eyes. “Very convincing.”
“Plausible deniability, Ash. It’s for your own good,” he said, then found a ring of keys and tossed them in the air, snatching them a moment after, ever the flashy playboy putting on a show.
She leveled her gaze at him, staring at the keys. “Just where exactly are you flying tonight, Howard?”
Howard blinked once. Then a few more times. Something in her eyes must have tipped him off, because he leaned forward on his desk, suddenly looking tired. “Look, apparently there’s a bunch of guys trapped behind enemy lines. Phillips refuses to launch a rescue mission, so…” Ashley stared at him, demanding more. “Steve Rogers is planning to go in and rescue the 107th himself. And I’m going to help him.”
“What did you say?” Ashley asked in a low voice, her stomach feeling like it had been flash-frozen and then punched.
“Ash, don’t be mad, I’ll be fine,” Howard said, sounding like he was trying to placate a worried child.
“What are you talking about? I don’t care,” she said dismissively, rushing to get her worry confirmed. “Did you say the 107th?”
Howard, vaguely offended but used to it, just nodded. “Yeah, why?”
She started to put together the pieces of a puzzle she should have solved the moment she got to the base. Since she got here, she heard that the soldiers here had just gotten a new Colonel, since the other one had some sort of breakdown or the like. Something had happened to the regiment, but Ashley was too pissed and absorbed in her work to care or ask.
If Bucky was here with the rest of the 107th, there was no way she wouldn’t have run into him one way or the other. Fate was funny like that. So Ashley drew the logical, wildly concerning conclusion that he was either dead -which she could not accept- or in need of rescue. In Austria, no less. “I’m coming with you.”
Howard shook his head, brow creased in a way that looked painful. “No, you’re not.” He started to leave, but Ashley turned to her hidden gear, unsheathing a sword and spinning it expertly in her hand before letting it rest at her side. Her friend stared at her, then at the sword, then back to her, attempting to decode her like a cipher. “I guess you are.”
Unfortunately, Ashley was unwilling to peek inside Sam Wilson’s head to figure out just what he was thinking when he opened his front door and saw Captain America and his two compatriots standing outside, looking like they clawed their way out of hell. But Ashley did have a pretty decent imagination, so it wasn’t a total loss, especially after watching his eyes widen like he’d open his door for a psychotic ex.
Still, despite the initial reaction, he let them all in, surprisingly chill about the whole “everyone trying to kill them” thing. Not asking for details the moment they walked in the door which, Ashley smiled faintly at the thought, was what Tony would have done.
Sam showed them to a guest room, threw some towels into the mix, and told them to clean up, pointing to the bathroom attached to the bedroom. It was dreamlike.
As soon as Sam left, the three of them eyed the shower longingly, but Ashley swiped up a towel mercilessly. “Of the three of us, I neither look perfect no matter what the hell I do --survive a bomb explosion or what-have-you-- nor am I an asshole traitorous fake friend. So, I am showering first. I will literally fight you on this.”
Steve opened his mouth, but she pointed at his face, narrowed eyes effectively shutting him up. “You don’t even exist to me right now,” Ashley said, intending for her tone to sound joking and overdramatic, surprised when the words came out calling for blood. Steve didn’t seem surprised so much as hurt, his body tensing at her words like she punched him in the gut.
She took a breath, then looked at Natasha for approval, who just waved her on dismissively, already leaning back on the bed like she was on a hammock in Fiji. Within a moment, she was in the bathroom and in a progressive state of undress.
Bless Sam Wilson for having hot water, Ashley thought as she stepped underneath the stream. She let out a sigh of relief at she washed the dirt and blood from her skin, not one hundred percent sure where the latter came from since she didn’t have any visible wounds aside from a few scratches. Ashley decided to chalk it up to possibly having fast healing abilities on top of everything else she didn’t quite understand.
This ‘everything else’ was a can of worms that Ashley really wanted nothing more than to leave on the shelf undisturbed, but her brain was always telling her that it was too late, that she hadn’t just take a can opener to the thing but had bashed its wormy brains open on the kitchen counter.
Clearly Steve knew more about her connection to the cube than he let on, which was incredibly interesting considering all the times she joked about seeing the cube in his past life. Apparently, he forgot to mention whatever cataclysmic thing it was that he knew after she’d nearly died trying to figure out what was happening to her.
Better yet, based on the vision, it wasn’t just the cube he knew about, but someone connected to it. Obviously, whoever it was, they hadn’t just met in passing, with Previous Cube Servant perhaps playing the role of a crazed Captain America fan wanting a poster or her boobs signed, but actually having fought together in the war. He knew them, probably knew what happened to her the moment she survived after absorbing the power of the cube.
An image flashed in front of her eyes, and for a second, she was in a lab, surrounded by various weapons in various stages of completion, watching Howard Stark --a young Howard Stark, no less-- study a small speck of blue light via robot separated by glass shielding. Though the vision was gone as soon as it had come --Ashley lurching forward in the shower, grabbing the bar to keep herself from falling to the floor-- she knew the illusive glass would shatter under the partial power of the Tesseract.
Why the actual hell would Steve not tell her? It wasn’t like him to be a jerk, definitely not to such epic proportions. In fact, the only times she’d ever been upset with him were when he was acting in the name of protecting her.
So, the logical conclusion was that he was upsetting her for the same reason now, that whatever had happened in that all-important past was bad enough that he thought it would be better to never tell her and risk her finding out on her own than to tell her the truth.
Head aching as though something inside her brain was trying to claw its way out through her temporal lobe, Ashley got out of the shower, hands shaking as she turned off the water, clenching them in rebellion as she dried off with a towel. As soon as she got her clothes on -which was quite a task when her hands weren’t working and her vision was spotting despite her efforts to will the specks away- the world felt like it was shaking, her own personal earthquake.
She was inside of a building that was clearly no longer structurally sound, the walls shaking, cracks running down them like spidery veins, pulsing to the beat of the building’s imminent collapse. Pressed against a wall, she was not focused on her surroundings anymore, but rather the man trapping her there, his face grotesque, the skin having been melt to his skull, colored bright red like cherry lollipops, which Ashley would have found funnier if her heart wasn’t stabbed through with a sword.
The hilt of it protruded from her chest like a switch, teetering back and forth like it couldn’t decide if it wanted to be on or off as she slid down to the ground, blood bubbling in her mouth like metal-flavored soda. Before she could even try to fight, she felt the Red Skull stumble over, pulling out his blade in one violent motion, then run toward some goal she couldn’t see.
Looking to her side, she saw Steve running to her, face horror-stricken, his chest heaving as he scanned her injuries, seeing an impossible amount of blood. “Ashley,” he said, voice strained.
The sound of glass shattering cut off the rest of Steve’s lament, and Ashley blinked a few times, returning to the bathroom floor and finding it covered with shards of frosted glass, the mirror cracked straight down the middle, as though she needed more things to worry about. Ashley was vaguely aware of the door slamming open, watched as Steve found her. He ran to her like the glass on the floor was nothing but dust, lifting her into his arms, her body shaking violently under the weight of the energy surging through her.
“Ashley,” he said desperately, but she could no longer see him in the present, her eyes flashing back to her deathbed, so she squeezed them shut and curled into his shoulder, blocking out the light to make the vision retreat along with the power that apparently accompanied it.
“What’s happening to her?” she heard Sam say as she was laid down on something soft. The bed, presumably. There was a moment before she felt the weight of blankets being brought over top of her, a hand touching her forehead. “She’s freezing,” Natasha’s voice said.
“Steve,” Sam demanded. Ashley could picture his arms crossed, staring down Captain America with all the threat of a baby bird staring down a massive grown eagle. She would have laughed at the image if she wasn’t so exhausted, her head spinning downward towards unconsciousness.
Steve sounded just as far gone as she was when he said, “Honestly, Sam, I really don’t know,” which was all Ashley heard before the world went dark again.
Captain America actually didn’t look too hysterical when he covered up the spangled outfit with a leather jacket and a metal helmet. In fact, Ashley figured he probably looked less ridiculous than she did, wearing nothing but street clothes with guns and knives pinned to her waist and swords strapped to her back.
When she walked with Howard onto the plane, trying her best to keep a low profile despite the wannabe ninja vibes she was projecting, the first eye she caught belonged to the woman sitting in the hold, who merely raised an eyebrow at her and said, “Who are you?”
Ashley smiled despite herself. “Ashley Grey. Ninja in training.” She held out a hand as Steve met her eye, and she winked at him.
The woman took it, and though she wasn’t smiling, Ashley could tell she was amused by the light in her eyes. “Peggy Carter. You’re the one Howard keeps bragging about.”
“I wouldn’t call it ‘bragging,’” Howard said as he maneuvered his way into the cockpit. “I just think you’ve got a lot in common.”
Peggy nodded toward Ashley’s bizarre ensemble. “Weren't expecting a fight today, I take it?”
Ashley looked down at it, suddenly feeling self-conscious. She knew she looked ridiculous, but it wasn’t as though this was a planned excursion, at least on her part… Seeing Peggy’s face, she smiled faintly. “I don't expect a lot of things that happen to me. Keeps things interesting.”
“You know what we’re doing?” Steve said, finally getting a word in.
“Wouldn’t be here if I didn’t,” Ashley said, her determination building in case he tried to say ‘no.’ In the background of her thoughts, Howard started the plane.
To his credit, Steve only questioned, not demanded. “Why are you here?”
For a moment, Ashley thought about demonstrating her sword-fighting prowess, perhaps just unsheathing them with showmanship like she did for Howard, but she got the impression that Steve didn’t need to be persuaded by anything more than conviction. “It’s personal,” she said.
Steve didn’t appear to have a problem with that, which was good because Ashley preferred to focus on the one at hand. As the other three conversed, Ashley took a seat next to Howard in the cockpit, staring out at the mountainous terrain of impending Austria, not quite strategizing but at the very least reminding herself of everything she knew about fighting.
The plane swerving to dodge enemy fire snapped Ashley back into reality, her hands gripping the armrests beside her as she braced herself for Howard’s defensive maneuvers. She had taken for granted his skills as a pilot, since the only experience she had was the times he’d flown her to places not prone to firing artillery weaponry at them, as well as that one disastrous incident in which Howard tried to show her the ropes. She was since banned from touching a single button on the Lockheed Electra, let alone holding the controls. In fact, before the shooting distracted him, Howard had been eyeing her warily from the moment she’d sat down next to him.
Turning to the sound of the plane door opening behind her, she saw Steve putting on his parachute, and she hurried over to join him, throwing the pack over top of her dual blades while Peggy and Steve talked. Howard looked back briefly to look at her. “You know you don’t have to do this, Ash.”
Ashley appreciated the concern but felt that she absolutely did have to. Potential POW rescue aside, if Hydra really did have their hands on the cube, there was a strong moral argument saying that Ashley needed to intervene. Besides, she wouldn’t die just yet. She could feel it.
Once Steve was equipped with the transponder, he started arguing with Peggy over when they were going to jump, with Steve advocating for a “no time like the present” sort of motto. He glanced at Ashley, who just walked over to him, ready for whatever, then turned back to Peggy. “The hell I can’t. I’m a Captain.”
And then they jumped.
Before they landed, Ashley had plenty of time to ponder the possible ramifications of jumping out of a civilian airplane with an untested super soldier, the only escape method being a transponder that she was not currently in possession of. In short, Ashley realized she might not have thought things through. At least, not to her typical degree of thoroughness. When they did land, Ashley voiced none of these concerns until about twenty minutes later, precisely when her brain couldn’t take it anymore.
“I probably should have asked earlier, but do you have any idea what you’re doing?” she asked as they crept through a forest, pine needles scraping against her hands that pushed away the thicker branches.
“Sure, saving a bunch of soldiers from enemy lines,” he said wryly.
“Incredibly reassuring, thanks,” Ashley said, her eyes scanning over the treeline for signs of enemy soldiers. For the moment, at least, there were none.
“Hey, you’re the one who insisted on coming along,” Steve whispered as they approached a clearing. A few hundred meters in front of them stood a massive factory, smoke stacks belching out black death and soldiers scattered about the perimeter like flies.
There were about five soldiers standing around, more than one of them having a smoke. This was a side entrance, Ashley discovered, where the slackers probably took their off-the-clock breaks. Assuming Hydra gave them any, that is --which was, upon reflection, rather unlikely.
The pair hid in the trees, cover helped greatly by the lack of starlight, the sky layered with a gauzy film of polluted air. Ashley gave him a look that she was disappointed he couldn’t fully see before sliding away from her cover and inching toward the entrance.
“What are you doing?” Steve hissed, following behind her.
She unsheathed her swords before running her fingers through her hair a few times. Sliding off her jacket to reveal a vaguely fitted shirt underneath, she threw the discarded clothes to Steve and returned the swords to her back. “Sneaking in,” she said, like it was the most obvious thing in the world, right before stepping out from her cover and running toward the Nazis, horror scratched into her face like tally marks on a prison wall.
For some reason, warning bells didn’t sound in their heads or across the compound, and Ashley managed to get right up to them, throwing herself into the arms of the nearest one, trying and failing to sob convincingly. They hadn’t even pulled out their guns, despite her being openly armed. She choked out what she thought might have been “help me” in German, but it had been a while since she’d brushed up on her Deutsch.
“What’s wrong, mein Liebling?” one of them said, possibly the one whose arms she thrown herself into. She'd understood his words just as well as the patronizing tone of his voice. Around her, the other soldiers snickered.
Ashley maintained the shrunken quality of her posture, backing away from the first man with purposeful shaking. She looked up to see what might have been the leader of the slacker Nazis and leaned towards his ear, the other men grinning as their friend reeled in a live one.
“I’m not your darling,” she said as she pulled her knife from her side pocket and stabbed it into his chest, yanking it upwards toward his heart.
He died with the look of a drugged elephant, big and dazed, and Ashley retrieved the knife before he slumped to the ground, then threw it angrily at one of the goons behind her.
It landed in his right eye, popping it like a particularly large whitehead as he fell backwards onto the ground, splayed out like he was in the process of making snow angels. Ashley didn’t pause to consider this, just unsheathed a sword and spun around to get behind one of the soldiers left, holding the blade to his throat while another one fumbled for his gun, aiming it at her despite the human shield.
Without obvious hesitation, Ashley cut the man’s throat and ducked down, shoving her sword through the chest of the man holding the gun he never got to fire, which hit the ground with a louder thunk than its owner. Ashley was just about to recognize that there should have been five when she heard the metallic clank of Steve’s shield slamming into the face of the final assailant, ringing like a gong as the man swayed and collapsed among his fallen comrades.
“Thanks for the help,” she said, retrieving her knife, wiping the blood on her leg.
Steve scoffed. “Yeah, you really seemed to need it.” He surveyed the scene, and if he was appalled, he hid the fact well. “Not a fan of guns?”
Ashley put her sword away and pulled out two knives, one for each hand. “Not a fan of noise.”
And with that, they stormed the palace.
Unsurprisingly, Steve was sitting next to her bed, holding her hand in his, head tipped forward from unplanned napping. Ashley forced her eyes open against the bright light of day --noting that it was in fact still daytime-- and pulled her hand away sharply, watching her friend jolt awake, lurching forward in his chair as he realized what had happened.
“You know, I’m starting to think you don’t take your sentry duties very seriously,” she said with half a smirk, though her narrowed eyes gave away her real sentiments.
Steve smiled faintly, still blinking away sleep. “Ash, you scared the hell out of me.”
“Yeah, it must be really awful to have no idea what’s going on when something bad happens, huh,” she muttered, sitting up in the bed and pulling off the covers. Steve moved to stop her, but her glare froze him while she brought her legs over the side of the bed. Oddly enough, though, Ashley was the one who shivered, the blankets no longer cocooning her in warmth.
He lifted his hands a bit in defeat before she had to say the words. “I know. You’re fine. But what happened, Ash?” he asked, his eyes reflecting an irritatingly earnest concern.
Ashley rolled her eyes. “I don’t know. One minute I was here, the next minute I was being stabbed through the heart by Johann Schmidt. Don’t supposed there’s anything you’d like to tell me?”
“Not really,” Steve sighed, looking pained. “Look, Ash, you know I’d—”
“If you’re not going to tell me anything, then the last thing I want is you getting the chance to justify your bullshit,” she said as she jumped off the bed, pleasantly surprised to find herself steady on her feet. With her ability to walk restored, she left the room without a second glance and made her way to the foyer where Natasha and Sam were strategizing, the former looking over a classified military file labeled “Falcon,” while she sat stiffly on the edge of the couch.
Sam saw Ashley first, raising an eyebrow at her and smirking. “Ah, look, it’s the woman who destroyed my bathroom. Should I show you to the kitchen so you can break all my dishes, too?”
Waving him off with a smile, Ashley said, “Just put it on my tab. I’ll pay you back once I’m no longer aiding and abetting a fugitive.” Sitting down next to Natasha, Ashley peered over at the file, which Natasha angled so she could read over it.
“You realize you’re a fugitive now, too, right?” Natasha asked.
When in doubt, Ashley went for sarcasm, but seeing Natasha’s face, one of genuine concern, she instead said, “I'm okay now.”
Natasha just nodded, opening her mouth to speak before Steve’s presence immediately ruined the mood. “What’s going on?” he asked, sufficiently disarming, but Ashley was already poised to kill him with a spoon. She glared at him, and he just let his shoulders slump in defeat.
“I was about to fill Ashley in on what we were talking about while she was out of commission,” Natasha said, ever the peacemaker. Trained assassin turned mediator. The thought made Ashley smile slightly, which meant she was distracted for the first bit of Sam and Natasha actually trying to get her up to speed, telling her about Pierce’s obvious involvement in whatever diabolical plot was underway at Shield, as well as a newfound need to interrogate Jasper Sitwell.
“Ah, yes, weasel-man,” Ashley said automatically at his name.
Natasha raised an eyebrow at her. “Weasel man?”
“Don’t get her started,” Steve said, shaking his head with a thin smile.
Ashley smirked at Natasha, mouthing “I’ll explain later” before saying at full volume, “I’ll get him.”
“What?” Steve said. “No, you won’t. You’re wanted by Shield, you can’t even get close to him.”
Scoffing, Ashley held her hand out at Steve and quickly pulled her fingers closed, and as she did so, Steve moved a few steps forward in space, eyes wide and arms out trying to find balance. She released her hold on him, and Steve stiffened, his eyes trying to meet Ashley, but she refused to look at him even through the corner of her eye. “Who said I needed to get close?”
Sam looked from her to Steve, brow creased. “Okay, I’m sorry, but what exactly is it that you can do?”
Ashley blinked, acting bored. “Move things through space, manipulate energy of things around me...” She lifted her hand, and one of the books on Sam’s bookshelf snapped out of its place on the shelf and landed gently in her lap. The cover of the book read Frankenstein in thin cursive swirls. “Good choice,” she murmured, flipping through the pages like they were her diary.
“And people?” Sam asked, catching Steve’s eye warily.
She shrugged, now turning the book to one of her sequences --the monster meeting the villagers-- skimming over the words that she already knew almost by heart. “Probably. If I wanted to.”
“Look, Ash, I don’t know if this is such a good idea,” Steve said finally.
Natasha sucked in a breath when Ashley stood up from the couch, walked over to Steve, standing right in front of him, somehow managing to look threatening despite standing an entire head shorter than him. But Steve could see that for all the show of intimidation, jaw clenched and fists curled, he wasn’t the one at risk of being hurt. “Say it, Steve. Just say what you’re really thinking.”
“Ash, you aren’t even in control right now,” he said softly, reaching on to put a hand on her shoulder, but Ashley was over it, squeezing her eyes shut while she recovered her sense of calm.
It wasn’t really so much a sense of ‘calm’ as a less violent form of arguing. At a controlled volume that didn’t blow out any eardrums, she said, “I won’t force you to tell me about whatever’s happening to me, but I’ll be damned if I let it stop me from helping. Okay?”
After a moment, Steve nodded. The tension in the room lessened just enough for Ashley to fake a smile and say, “Great. Now let’s go break about a million federal laws.”
It was almost cathartic to storm a base filled with Nazi soldiers and just beat the living hell out of them. At least, it was for Ashley. After all, she found it fairly easy to distinguish herself as being on the “good” side, since she was fighting literal Nazis by the side of an American symbol of freedom and fairness. And she was pretty damn good at it, too. She'd consider the loss of human life after the adrenaline wore off.
Steve and Ashley made it through the compound swiftly, no longer caring about sounding the alarm, which did in fact start blaring across the factory at a volume that Ashley felt was completely unnecessary. Distracted by her annoyance, Ashley felt a bullet graze her shoulder, hissing and grabbing the wound as though it would make it go away, taking cover behind a stack of crates.
“You okay?” Steve asked as he kicked a Hydra agent square in the chest, sending him flying into the wall, cracking the foundation. Ashley waved him off with her unbloodied hand, then wiped the other on her leg, which at this point was stiff with dried blood, and got back on her feet.
As she did, she pulled out her two guns, then catapulted herself over the crate. Spinning her body midair to gain enough momentum to slide across the floor, she shot into a Hydra agent’s chest the moment she touched the ground, kicking the legs out from underneath the one beside her initial target, sending his head down to crack against the ground. She aimed her gun at his head, a bullet slicing right between the agent's eyes as she dove for cover behind another crate.
Hearing Steve still fighting, she looked out from her cover and saw him demolishing the remaining nearby agents, and within a moment, they were all disposed as well. She smiled weakly at him as she shot out the heart of a recovering Hydra agent, blood trickling from her shoulder lazily. “I’m good.”
Steve just nodded. “Come on, they must be close.”
He wasn’t wrong. They ran down the length of another corridor, one that was sparse with Hydra agents that should have been absolutely crawling the place. Still, focusing on one problem at a time, Ashley turned the corner and saw cages lining the walls of the room, filled to the brim with POWs. “Holy hell,” she muttered, running for the nearest cage and the guard that stood in front of it.
A bunch of overcrowded, imprisoned men watched with wide eyes as Ashley approached their cage with rage marring her face as she punched the guard right in the face before his gun was fully drawn. Since he wasn’t smart enough to immediately fall, she put her hands on both his shoulders and she kneed him in the groin.
Once he was doubled over in pain, Ashley slammed his head into her knee, and he finally fell to the ground like a bloody ragdoll. She knelt beside the guard and rifled in his pockets for the key ring to unlock the cage, quickly running through the ring to find the right one.
“Come on, lady, you’re killing us here,” said a soldier in the back after her fifth attempt. She ignored him and found it on the eighth try. Behind her, the prisoners Steve released were already filtering out of their cell, looking incredibly confident despite the appearance of only two people there to rescue them. Once her own cell was released, she started scanning the crowds for Bucky. She didn’t see him. He wasn’t there.
“Are there any others?” Steve asked, his voice strained as the alarms continued to blare above them.
Ashley couldn’t hear a response because she was distracted by someone whispering in her ear like an old friend. “Hey, baby. What’s with the getup?” Without even bothering to look anywhere but down, Ashley slammed her heel into the foot of the man, who yelped as Ashley watched Steve take off for another corridor, and she forgot him completely.
She turned to two of the men behind her, pulling her guns out of their holsters and handing them off to some guy in a bowler hat and another in a beret. “Beat them to hell,” she said before running after Steve and, she hoped to God, what she came here for.
The hallway shone with green light, like something out of a haunted house ride, entirely deserted, with papers strewn across the floor. Clearly Hydra was in a hurry. But so was Ashley.
She heard voices coming from a room on her left, and her knife stayed ready at her side when she walked in to find Steve helping Bucky off an examination table he’d obviously been strapped to not a minute before. “Oh my God,” Ashley said before half-sprinting over to them.
Steve had an arm under Bucky’s shoulder to keep him upright, and Ashley ran to his other side, putting a hand on his cheek, guiding his head toward hers. “You’re alive.”
“You’re incredible,” Bucky said, his eyes unfocused and pupils dilated, staring off into the unknown like a soothsayer.
Ashley put her arm under Bucky’s free shoulder and helped hoist him up. Steve still took most of his weight as they walked off. “You don’t even know who I am,” she said with a soft smile.
“Are you real now?” he mumbled to her, but Ashley couldn’t even come up with an answer before Bucky switched to interrogating Steve about his latest growth spurt.
If they hadn’t been in the middle of an enemy base, Ashley would have laughed at the absurdity of it all. Even with the present circumstances, she still had to hide a laugh with a well-timed cough. She couldn’t believe Bucky knew Steve. Not just knew him but knew him before the serum. They were old friends. What were the odds?
Ashley was so busy considering what exactly the odds of this mutual acquaintance were right up until her heart tugged violently to the left, like a fishing being snagged on a hook. A hallway leading god-knew-where greeted her, inviting as a graveyard. An image of Arthur flashed behind her eyes, almost blinding, and she stumbled under the weight of it.
Bucky looked at her, smiling weakly with some semblance of understanding, trying to stand a bit more on his own. Ashley felt the weight on her shoulder lessen significantly, and in a moment Bucky was entirely relying on Steve.
“Thanks, soldier,” she said, kissing Bucky’s cheek before slipping out of his grasp, heading for the cursed hallway.
“Where are you going?” he asked. Steve stared at her, mirroring Bucky’s confusion.
“There’s something I need to do. I’ll meet you at the treeline. Go!”
Without another word, at least none that Ashley listened to, she took off in search of Arthur.
Ashley didn’t really need to be within spitting distance of Sitwell to get him to the building where Steve and Natasha were waiting, but she really liked the coffee shop nearby. It was cute, quaint, and had free wifi –not that she needed it, but the offer was appreciated.
She sipped at a caramel macchiato like any nonthreatening, stereotypical businesswoman, just with a dozen knives lining the pockets of her coat and the bottoms of her heels. Ashley even shifted her –there was no better word for it—aura into something unassuming, for good measure.
Jasper Sitwell came out of his meeting with a small army of bureaucrats, all in suits and most with briefcases, but they mostly dispersed as the Senator he was meeting with bid him his goodbyes, hugging him like an old friend and ally. As he did this, Ashley moved into position.
Once Sitwell was alone, Ashley sauntered up to him, ever the ambitious career woman to anyone who looked, and said, “Sitwell, you and I are going to take a walk. To the roof of that building over there. Sound like a plan?”
He studied Ashley’s face before she let the illusion drop for a moment. In that moment, Sitwell’s eyes popped like corn kernels, but a smile crept onto his face like a spider as her features were rendered unobtrusive and blurry. “Ah, Ms. Stark. I assume you’re here on behalf of your fugitive friend.”
“I’m here because you’re a dickhead, actually,” Ashley said, still all smile. She could hear Steve reprimanding her in the back of her mind, which only incensed her further. “The fact that you’re also trying to kill my friend is just a coincidence.”
Sitwell smiled like a weasel with IBS. “And I suppose you’re going to tell me to ‘get in the car or you’ll make me.’” Her smile faltered a bit, but Ashley just raised her eyebrow and started dragging Jasper Sitwell to the car around the block via linked arms. “You know, you could have done great things with Shield, if only you had the guts to use your gifts.”
Ashley said nothing for the rest of their jaunt. A black car was waiting for them at the edge of the street, perfectly obvious in its discreetness. Jasper tensed under her grip as she opened the door. “Get in the damn car, Weasel-man.”
Sam sat in the front seat, looking back as Ashley shoved Sitwell into the back of the car with more force than necessary, then got in and sat beside him with all the grace of a pissed off mountain lion. “Nice work, Katana.”
Narrowing her eyes, Ashley said, “That’s such a niche reference. I don’t even have my swords on me, nerd.”
He smirked as he started driving. “Yeah, but you understood it. Nerd.” Sitwell watched the exchange in between heavy breaths and, based on the sour smell, cold sweats. All of his calculated arrogance washed away the moment he realized just how routine this entire kidnapping scenario was for them. It wasn’t, not really, but Ashley found she was pretty decent at making it seem that way, through both magical and mundane means.
“You realize I’m a federal agent. If you hurt me, you could be looking at 20 years in prison. Is that what you want?” He was trying to threaten. It was adorable.
In response, Ashley magicked his tie into her open palm and yanked on it hard, bringing his face lurching toward hers with impressive speed. She stopped it before his skull could crack against hers. “More than anything,” she whispered, then sent his body backwards against the door, slapping against it like a splat ball.
Sitwell stammered. “You… you’re insane.” That was the new aura she’d decide on, yes.
Ashley shrugged, sitting back in her seat and examining her nails, picking at the dirt underneath them with pointed disinterest. “I’m just following orders.”
“Yeah, and what orders were those?” Sitwell spat from his unofficial spot of 'as far away from Ashley as physically possible.'
She gave him her finest crazed grin. “Only to keep you alive.”
Sitwell said nothing in response. Feeling she had effectively done her job --which was really just to soften him up a bit, but Sitwell didn’t need to know that-- they arrived at the building in a tense bit of silence. As Ashley carted Sitwell up to the rooftop, Sam disappeared conspicuously. Once they made it to the door, she kicked it open with flair before throwing him toward the wolves. Literally, she threw him to the ground, definitely scraping up his custom-tailored suit, much to his dismay.
His eyes went wide when he saw Steve standing over him, wearing an expression that he only managed when he truly felt the moral high ground beneath his feet. At least, this was Ashley’s interpretation as Sitwell tried for a moment to crawl backward from the Captain, to which Ashley replied by digging her combat boot into his back, leaving a distinct footprint on the back of the sleek black fabric. “Tell me about Zola’s algorithm,” Steve said.
Stupidly, Sitwell resisted this very reasonable request, and the verbal sparring lasted only seconds as Sitwell regained his footing, only to be walked right to the edge of the roof by the one and only Captain America, Ashley and Natasha flanking him. “What were you doing on the Lemurian Star?”
“I was throwing up. I get seasick,” Sitwell said, smugness quickly returning as he assessed his new threat, apparently much more predictable than the previous one. “Is this supposed to insinuate that you’re gonna throw me off the roof? Because it's really not your style, Rogers.”
Ashley waved her fingers at Sitwell, blue sparks of power flitting between them. He narrowed his eyes at her. “You wouldn’t. You’re nothing but Captain America’s little pet project, you-“
Sitwell’s vocal cords were distracted by the sudden loss of oxygen and subsequent screaming as Natasha kicked him in the stomach, sending him flying toward death. “He talks too much,” she said.
“That’s kind of what we want,” Steve said, backing away from the ledge. Ashley stayed on top, looking down as Sitwell spun around in his freefall like a plastic bag caught in the wind, completely powerless.
As she stepped down from the ledge, Ashley said, “I like him. He’s like a particularly ugly ferret.”
“I thought he was a weasel,” Steve replied, following the joke with familiar ease.
She glared at him, still hurt despite the temporary truce. “Don’t push it. I could always zap you off the building.”
Steve gave her a tired look, and before Natasha could berate either of them for being children, a blast of wind followed shortly by a flash of wings and strained screaming signaled Sam and Sitwell’s return. The latter dropped to the ground like an abandoned baby doll, though unlike a doll, Sitwell staggered back onto his feet, spewing out words like bile as soon as he was back on solid ground. “Zola's algorithm is a program...for choosing Insight's targets!”
“What targets?” Steve asked, focus effectively returned to the task at hand.
“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?”
His laugh was as pleasant as putting a fork in a blender. “How could it not? The 21st century is a digital book. Zola taught Hydra how to read it.”
When no one automatically understood the terrible metaphor, Sitwell sighed and tried again, probably enjoying the attention. “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.”
“So glad I took the ACTs,” Ashley muttered. Steve possibly heard her, based on the slight tilting of his head, the tensing of his shoulders, and the fact that he quickly flashed a glare at her, but it was hard to be completely sure.
“And what then?” he said, ever the professional.
Essentially, the Helicarriers were set to eliminate about 20 million people if they made it into the air. Jasper Sitwell, having revealed this information to some of the only people in the world equipped to stop it --who were now dragged him back to the car like he was their accomplice-- started to panic. “Oh my god, I’m going to get killed for this.”
Ashley shrugged. “Don’t worry, Sitwell, it’s not a big deal, we’ll just add you to the statistic. You’ll barely be a blip.”
Now Steve fully glared at her, even turning to stop her, hand on her shoulder like a friend or goddamn barbarian, she couldn’t decide. “Don’t you take anything seriously?”
Her eyes went slack with feigned disinterest. “I'm not the one keeping secrets like a goddamn angsty teenager.”
Steve took a long breath, and Ashley figured he was either trying not to yell at her or stall for time. In any case, Sitwell started huffing out laughs from in front of Steve, arms pinned to his back not deterring his body from nearly shaking with laughter. When he realized they were all watching him, he managed a half shrug. “You’ve got to admit, this is hysterical. I mean, I’m listening to the top of Hydra’s threat list get into some sort of domestic dispute. It’s unreal.”
“I’m sorry, ‘domestic dispute’?” Ashley said, well aware of the bait she just taken but caring an incredibly low amount. To put a value on it would be to fully define the concept of negative infinity, which Ashley felt was accurately impossible.
Sitwell looked at her with the incredulous stare of a parent listening to their teenage child try to explain away their broken curfew. “You’re telling me you aren’t sleeping together? Please. You don’t need an algorithm to figure that shit out.”
Ashley gritted her teeth. Steve looked at her, eyes pleading. “Ashley,” he warned.
She met his eyes for a moment before turning to Sitwell, her features distorted by her immense irritation, then spoke with the precision of a scalpel, ending with a well-timed smile. “Just because you’re a repressed 50-year-old virgin doesn’t mean you have a right to pretend like you understand the concept of sexual attraction just to make yourself feel included in the realm of possibility. Accept that you’re not and move on with your life.”
In hindsight, Ashley realized it might not have actually been Sitwell that she was frustrated with.
“Did anyone ever tell you you’re a goddamn bitch?” Sitwell said after a moment, nearly spitting at her feet.
Tilting her head up as though considering the question, Ashley didn’t look down as she punched the side of Sitwell’s face, hearing the crack of his nose breaking as his head snapped in the direction of her punch, his eyes rolling back under the impact, unconscious.
Unsurprised in the least, Steve didn’t stumble under the sudden weight of an unconscious version of Sitwell, just kept moving for the car, probably thankful it was place somewhere out of the sight of potential witnesses. “Alright, that was slightly fair,” he said. Ashley beamed at him, forced as it was, and practically skipped ahead of him. “Slightly,” he reiterated, but it was already too late. He enabled her, and she was already in a mood to ignore him.
Natasha’s brow creased, and she stopped in the middle of a stride, then said, “Wait, so you’re not sleeping together?”
Somehow, a single stupid sentence had been enough to bring Ashley's emotions to a boiling point. But rather than an outburst of hideous proportions, Ashley just laughed, loudly and with bravado, flicking off Natasha as she opened the car door so that Steve could toss Sitwell inside with not the slightest hint of ceremony.
Glad to find that her ability to run, or rather a lack thereof, was enhanced by adrenaline, she made it down the hallway with a speed to rival Jesse Owens (not really, but she could dream). She paused only to knock a few Hydra agents unconscious, most of them probably abandoning their posts in favor of surviving what Ashley guessed was an eventual explosion of the entire compound.
Turning corners with only a thought for the tugging on her heart, the pain that lessened the closer she got, like a cosmic version of Marco Polo, she quickly realized she hadn’t the slightest clue where she was in relation to the exit. When she came to a room echoing with sound, however, she forgot this plight, her head now heavy with the presence of the person she was looking for.
“Come on, guys, you can’t be serious,” came a voice she knew even without the internal reminder. “Let’s just all leave before it’s too late.”
“No can do, buddy, sorry. Orders are orders,” said gravel personified, followed by a cocking of a gun. Having heard enough, Ashley withdrew her swords and swung inside the room, flying blind but caring little.
Other than Arthur, there were six men, all Hydra agents, who turned to her with surprise that was evident even for the ones wearing face masks, the way their bodies jolted a dead giveaway. Apropos words, since Ashley threw one her swords at the man closest to Arthur. The blade took root in his side and burrowed itself past the point of no return, the dead man’s gun dropping to the floor just before its owner.
Ashley held the other blade close to her as she slid on the floor toward two other men, both firing at her now, bullets ricocheting off the floor right beside her before she could cut the backs of their legs, sending them to the ground where she could dispatch them without the threat of bullets hitting anything more than the first few layers of her skin.
Still three more guys, aside from Arthur, were firing madly at her. Though she hoped it drew the fire away from him, she considered the possibility of him already being dead, and the thought sent a surge of power through her crackled under her skin, which was now coated in an unpleasant layer of both sweat and patches of blood.
She clenched her fists, her knuckles gripping the sword now white with effort. The others went down with ease, and Ashley couldn’t even remember how. Jumping to her feet, she saw the bodies of the soldiers thrown across the room and started shouting Arthur’s name.
“Ash?” she heard a muffled voice say. Spinning in its direction, she saw Arthur’s head peeking out from behind the entrance from the hallway, covered in drywall but otherwise relatively intact.
“Oh, thank god,” Ashley said, running for him. He was on his feet by the time she got to him, and he pulled her into a hug as soon as she was close enough.
Ashley burrowed her head in his shoulder. “I thought you were dead.”
“Me, too,” Arthur said, then released her as she went over to the blade protruding from a spare Hydra agent, sheathing them as Arthur pointed his head in the opposite direction from where she came. “Come on, we’ve got to hurry.”
“Is that the way out?” Ashley asked while walking back over to him, though she followed him as soon as he grabbed her hand and took off.
“In a way. It’s the way to the cube,” he said, stopping Ashley in her tracks despite their entwined hands. “Ash, come on, it’s our only chance.”
“To what? Get ourselves killed again?” she said, eyes unfocused in disbelief.
Arthur squeezed her hand. “To destroy it. End everything once and for all. I can’t do it without you.”
Ashley’s eyes met his and found only sincerity. “I thought this was what you wanted.”
“Not like this," he said. "Please.”
Without another word, Ashley followed him down the rest of the corridors, feeling the same power she’d felt in the room she’d found Arthur start to build under her skin. They were close. Running up a few flights of steps, Ashley was surprised at the lack of Hydra operatives in sight. “Arthur, where is everybody?”
“Schmidt’s blowing the place up. Anyone not willing to die for Hydra is abandoning ship.”
Ashley nodded, taking in the information as she scanned her surroundings for nonexistent threats. “Fair enough. How did you get here?” she asked, the question having been plaguing her mind since the moment she registered his presence.
They turned another hallway, and Ashley wondered just how massive the place really was and how much longer they had to get out. “Battle of Azzano. It’s where they got most of the POWs. Hydra came in with their Tesseract tech and took out both sides, took the survivors to churn out more of their machines. And for experiments.”
“Is that what they did to you?” Ashley said, horrified, her mind returning briefly to Bucky and the operation table, sending a shudder down her spine despite her best efforts.
He looked back at her for a moment, slowing down, holding her hand tight enough to cut off the circulation. “Not exactly.”
With a sudden jerk of her arm, nearly having it torn from its socket, Ashley went flying into Arthur’s ready arms, froze in shock as handcuffs clicked around her wrists behind her back, burning the skin they touched like a brand. “Oh, god, iron,” she hissed, then started screaming, kicking and squirming but Arthur pulled her arms tighter against her back, carting her forward with impressive brute force. “Arthur, what the hell?” she seethed, but even as she said it, while he took the swords off of her back, tossing them aside like they were nothing, everything started clicking into place.
Especially when she saw Johann Schmidt standing at the end of the hall, smiling like a proud father watching his son hit a homerun.
“You are such a fucking asshole, let me go,” Ashley screamed, writhing under her restraints despite the revolting scent of her burning skin, and its general futility, unable to stop her eventual arrival to Johann Schmidt’s presence, the bastard only a few feet away from her.
“Ah, I see you’ve finally managed it,” he said, smiling at Arthur like he was a particularly well-trained dog before turning his approving gaze to Ashley. “So you’re the one the cube’s been looking for. Doctor?”
There was a rat of a man, stout and beady, who scurried up from behind him, holding a metal container for dear life. He didn’t have to open it for Ashley to know it was the Tesseract. She’d felt its presence more with every second, and her blood simmered under the weight of it all. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said through clenched teeth, watching as an amused Schmidt gestured at the rat to open the box.
“But sir,” he protested, cut off by a hard look from Schmidt. Nodding in submission, he quickly twisted the box open, and the bright light of the Tesseract seemed to spill out like dry ice, coming off in waves that must have only been painful to Ashley, because she was the only one crying out in pain as she could tell.
“Arthur, if you would please,” Schmidt said over her cries of anguish, the Tesseract’s power seeping into her skin, like being electrocuted in real time as she resisted its call.
“Why are you doing this?” Ashley ground out. “Do you know what it does?”
Schmidt grabbed Ashley’s face with impressive strength, though his grip wasn’t nearly as unbearable as his breath right in front of her. “I know better than you. You have all of this power at your fingertips and yet you resist. You are running from our destiny.”
“‘Our’?” Ashley said, smiling despite the now-blinding pain as Arthur grabbed her hands and pointed them toward the cube. She wondered what all he revealed about their own destiny to the Hydra madmen. More importantly, she wondered why he was doing it. Bastard.
“If such a pathetic creature like yourself can harness its power, imagine what someone worthy can do with it,” he said, then released her jaw. “Once we figure out what connects you to the cube, I will create it for myself.”
So Arthur at least hadn’t told him that much. She wondered what his play was, if there was a play at all. Ashley couldn’t get a read on him. It was like looking at a stranger wearing his face, all wrong for a reason she couldn’t quite define. “You’re a really bad supervillain, you know? Too boring and cliched.”
The villain in question narrowed his eyes but simply retaliated by waving Arthur forward, and Ashley felt all of her pain retreat back into the cube, an eye of a hurricane followed by the cube filling her up with power, every cell in her body now bursting with energy that she couldn’t control. She collapsed under the weight, staying upright only with the strength of Arthur’s grip, deciding her new play was to be dead, turning full ragdoll so Arthur had to lift her body into his arms.
Schmidt laughed at the theatrics as fresh power surged through Ashley, but she hadn’t the slightest idea how to release it at will. Ashley felt when the cube was shut back into its container, like the wire connecting them was cut, but the message was already received. “Take her to the car. Zola will meet you there. We have something to deal with first,” Schmidt said, looking over his shoulder up at a catwalk, everything below it smoking and flaming like mad.
Suddenly she was being bounced up and down as Arthur ran the opposite direction, presumably to a car. Time flitted by as Ashley struggled to remain conscious, not wanting her feint to become a reality. She felt bloated with energy, it weighed her down like it had been tied to her with a chain, dragging her to the bottom of an ocean of poison while she struggled not to breathe it in. Still, Ashley was aware enough to feel when the building shook with the remnants of a not-so-distant explosion. Her eyes opened of their own accord as Arthur stumbled under the shockwave.
Ashley figured it was now or never, and during Arthur’s stumble, she twisted hard, lifting up her legs and kicking them down on his arm, causing it to drop out from under her.
She braced for impact, having little protection against her body smacking against the floor, and indeed every part of her lit up with pain, but Ashley ignored it and got to her feet as gracefully as she could while Arthur recovered from the surprise attack.
“God, Ash, what the hell?” he said, rubbing at his arm.
“‘What the hell?’ Are you shitting me right now?” Ashley said, scrutinizing him like the Voynich script. “You sold me out. You tricked me. You asshole.”
He stood up straight, looking much more imposing at his full height than when he was pretending to be nonthreatening. “I’m doing what I have to do, More.”
“You know, I always hated that stupid name,” Ashley said, right before she kicked her leg up and hit Arthur right in the groin. He keeled over in pain but stumbled forward to her, straightening up in a moment, now looking pissed.
“You’re being ridiculous,” he said, then ran for her, charging like he was going to tackle her. Hands still on fire behind her back, Ashley was limited in her movement, and found that the only plausible thing to do was roll her eyes, then run like hell.
But despite the adrenaline, Ashley wasn’t nearly as fast as Arthur, and he managed to get close enough to grab her shoulders and yank her back, wrapping his arms around her and a leg around hers for good measure as she tried to kick and then weigh herself down. Neither worked well, and Arthur said in response, “Ash, you’re not a child. Stop acting like one.”
Anger flaring in her enough to rival the power still pulsing through her skin, Ashley nodded slowly, then whipped her head backward, slamming it into Arthur’s with impressive force. Stunned, Arthur released her and stumbled away. Ashley turned around and kicked him in the face, and he collapsed to the ground.
“Ashley!” a voice called, and she looked behind her to see Bucky and Steve running toward her, both covered in soot and blood.
She smiled, almost collapsing herself from relief as she moved to meet them halfway. “Hey there, boys,” Ashley said. Bucky was poised to make it to her first, which no one had been expecting, but before they could have any sort of reunion, Ashley heard the cocking of a gun. Spinning toward Arthur, she could only move to make sure Bucky was shielded before the jolt of the bullet ripping through her stomach sent her forward toward the floor.
Based on Sitwell’s incessant rambling and unnecessary repetitive speech, Ashley drew the conclusion that Hydra was not a fan of leaks. She briefly considered that perhaps this could be helped if she just strangled Jasper Sitwell right then and there, possibly with his own gaudy silk tie. Ashley also realized that this would only help herself, which prevented her from justifying actions more extreme than telling Sitwell to shut his damn mouth or she’d wire it shut herself.
“That seems like a lot of extra work. Why don’t you just gag him or something?” Sam chimed in from the driver’s seat.
“Well, gags are only temporary. Wiring is much more difficult to remove than a stuffed sock shoved down your throat,” Natasha offered. Steve looked back at her with a face that said, "Are you really enabling this?" in very loud silence.
Ashley replied to this unspoken insult by launching into the potential merits of just removing Sitwell’s vocal cords entirely. “Ah, but see, that still leaves writing. Hydra wouldn’t like that,” Sam replied.
“Yeah, we could always cut off the hands, but that might be unnecessary,” Ashley said, staring thoughtfully at Sitwell’s clenched hands. “After all, I don’t care about this dick spilling Hydra secrets. I just don’t want to continue hearing the voice of a rubber duck come alive.”
Sitwell shook his head, looking like Steve whenever Ashley refused to do any boring task he’d ever asked of her. “I don’t understand how someone so objectively powerful in pretty much every aspect of their existence manages to be essentially nothing more than a petulant toddler with a loaded gun.”
Rather than take offense, Ashley looked thoughtful, silent for a moment before saying, without the slightest trace of humor, “I like to think of myself as more of a moody teenager with a tank. Or perhaps a missile launcher.”
“Ashley,” Steve reprimanded, but the word was so diluted from overuse that Ashley just ignored it entirely, shrugging it off as Jasper opened his mouth, half of a syllable escaping before turning to a scream as the car door he was pressed against turned into a vacuum.
No sooner than the glass of the car shatter against his already-battered face was Jasper Sitwell thrown out like a rogue baseball into the no man’s land of the freeway, whereupon there was a drawn-out honk of a tractor trailer and then nothing more. At least from Sitwell.
“Oh shit,” Ashley said, backing into Natasha as a metal arm retreated from the window. It didn’t really help much when the roof of the car started getting stung with bullets, some forming little pimples on the hood of the car, but most of them bursting open and into the floor, hitting it like flashbangs.
Though her mind rattled in her head, her focus not particularly stellar at the moment, Ashley managed to put an energy barrier around the car, stopping the drizzle of bullets, just as Steve pulled the emergency brake, sending the car screeching to a stop as the assailant flew in a clumsy arc down the road in front of them.
The truck behind them didn’t slam on the brakes quite fast enough, hitting them like a bumper car. Though the car and its contents were relatively unharmed, courtesy of the energy coating them like metaphysical bubble wrap, they still went careening forward toward the quickly-recovering assassin.
Not seeing the danger, the assassin jumped back onto the roof of the car, sticking the landing before trying to punch a hole through the windshield. Instead, the metal of his arm bounced off the glass harmlessly, pointlessly, letting Sam accelerate right up until the moment a grenade clicked and bounced through the open window of the back seat.
Ashley refocused her attention on containing the grenade, which went off beside her feet with a dull pop, more like a dud of a firecracker than a deadly projectile, leaving the car vulnerable to exterior attack, which involved the sudden loss of a steering wheel and subsequently Sam’s ability to drive, an already-dubious skill.
“Shit!” the man in question screamed as the car shifted violently with its new and unwanted intent of off-roading.
By this time, Natasha had already retrieved her guns, but she waited until Ashley’s defensive measures failed before shooting through the roof at him. Steve shouted something, but Ashley heard nothing, amassing energy around her for what would certainly be a hot mess of a fight, one that she would minimize as much as possible.
She was distracted from her planning as Steve broke off his own door, grabbing Sam and Natasha, Ashley latching onto his back before they all exploded out into the street, free of the car that promptly smashed into the median.
Shots were fired not just by the cyborg assassin but also his apparent reinforcements, Hydra agents armed to the teeth that steadily walked toward them, firing in calculated bursts. Ashley deflected the bullets from them, but nulling energy was incredibly taxing, and she could feel her entire body weakening under the stress of so much manipulation.
Without a word, the trio split up and started fighting. Most of Ashley’s weapons were in the deceased car, with only her hidden blades on her person, which were mainly throwing knives. She also had a Swiss Army blade, but that, along with everything else, was hardly useful when there were machine guns aimed at her.
Ashley cursed and ran for the edge of the overpass, leaping off of it as though she were running through the air, slowing down her fall with a space jump just before she touched the ground, landing with a smooth rolling stop. Then she ran for the bus that Steve and his shield managed send spiraling toward nowhere good, slowing it down as quickly as she could. She wasn’t quite up to shielding the entire thing from the bullets, but at least she could prevent whiplash.
As soon as Steve was clear, fighting the agents who rappelled down the overpass like nerds with guns, Ashley went to work evacuating the street, starting with the people trapped in the bus. There weren’t many injuries besides scrapes and bruises, but those with twisted ankles or definite concussions were helped by those without, and once they were relatively secure, out of the line of fire at any rate, Ashley ran down the street toward the actual fight.
By now, Ashley’s body felt like it was covered in cement, every muscle stiff and heavy from the massive output of power. Still, she managed to sneak up on two Hydra agents, stabbing their backs with her throwing knives before staring down at their guns, taking a deep breath, and running for more of the action.
Naturally, bullets started splintering her path, sending her zig-zagging on her road to the others, but Ashley otherwise ignored them and hoped for the best, though she did stop briefly to throw a knife at a wannabe sniper hiding behind a cement barrier on the side of the road. She hit his eye with little remorse and no looking back, especially since she saw Steve fighting the main event, the cyborg assassin with an obvious chip on his shoulder, who mistook the innocent side of a van for Steve’s face.
The pair kept fighting, and Ashley was too worried to interrupt in case it threw Steve off, but based on how tired she was --her head throbbing, blood determined to make its way to her ears as quickly and loudly as possible-- she probably wouldn’t have been much help anyways. But when Steve seemed to be losing, shield stolen by the assassin in a power grab Ashley felt in her soul, she did start running for them, determined to do something, just as Steve managed to get the upper hand and throw the assassin down the street, sending him rolling down the street like a poorly-landed plane, the assassin’s mask only making half the distance.
It felt like something out of a movie, the cinematic reveal of the attempted killer as he pushed himself back to his feet, long ratty hair obscuring the sides of his features, but not enough to matter. Ashley was close enough to meet his eyes, seeing something there that made her think her heart had been jump-started, mistaken for a car battery, energy pulsing through her as her head pounded and an image transposed itself over the assassin.
A younger version of the assassin, with a flesh arm not yet exchanged for metal, wearing ratty clothes caked in dirt, skin covered in soot and various grime, an older gun held limply at his side. His eyes, despite the obvious hardship, were kind as he stared back at her.
“Who the hell is Bucky?”
And then Ashley was back in the present, at least in theory, because immediately blackness consumed her vision like a parasite, unsatisfied until the very moment it overtook the world, leaving Ashley to wonder what the hell happened and what would happen next.
According to his military file that Ashley was not in any universe authorized to read, Bucky Barnes excelled in many areas of value to the United States Army, including and not limited to academics, athletics, and, interestingly, sharpshooting. None of these innate abilities, however, seemed to affect the outcome of the woman Bucky seemed almost certain to fall in love with being shot right in front of his eyes, her body falling forward toward the floor like a house of cards, collapsing with little fanfare but quite a bit of accompanying horror.
He figured he probably said her name, maybe even shouted it, but all he registered was the feeling of his feet smacking against the ground. Sound buzzed in his ears like radio whine as he hit the floor beside her, not sure what to do but needing to try.
While his mind was elsewhere, he felt more than saw Steve’s shield slam into the head of Ashley’s assailant, who promptly collapsed back onto the floor, gun skidding across it. Bucky reached out for Ashley only to be beaten by her own attempt at recovery, face contorted in pain as her elbows pressed into the floor as they supported the weight of Ashley’s weakened frame.
“Any chance you could give me a hand, soldier?” she said with a forced smile. Snapped back to reality, Bucky put an arm under Ashley’s and helped her to her feet, which was quite the task when her hands were trapped behind her back. Though he couldn’t see blood against the dark fabric of her suit, based on the apparent pain she was in and the puddle she left on the floor, Bucky could make a fair inference that Ashley wasn’t doing well.
Steve stood in front of them, leaving the agent sprawled out on the floor, looking ready to run. “We’ve got to go now. Can you move?” he asked Ashley, who pressed her lips together in thought, glancing at her unconscious attempted killer.
“Yeah, but I’m not leaving without him,” she said, straightening up as though to prove her point.
Bucky’s head whipped toward hers of its own accord. “He tried to kill you. Are you insane?”
Ashley swallowed hard, her eyes squeezing shut from the pain of the effort. “Please,” she said to Steve, who didn’t hesitate to honor her request, lifting the body of the Hydra agent off the floor, throwing him over his shoulder before taking off in the presumable direction of the exit.
With every turn, the low rumbling of the building seemed to become hungrier, louder, until the hallway they were in shook from its proximity to an explosion. Ashley pushed herself further, now fully running despite the pain radiating from her stomach, though by then it began to ebb, turning from blinding pain to just short of unbearable. Thank the Lord for adrenaline, she thought.
Focused on keeping up with Steve’s steady pace, Ashley found it difficult not to nearly drag Bucky alongside her, his footsteps still clumsy with disuse, every stride some sort of achievement. “Come on, slowpoke, speed up,” she told Bucky with a tight smirk.
His arm was still wrapped around her, so Bucky merely squeezed her gently in response just as they broke free of the compound and aimed for the treeline as the building essentially burst into flames behind them. Once they made it, it was like someone cut their strings, and like broken puppets, Bucky and Ashley slumped at the sight of hundreds of Allied soldiers now liberated from earthly hell, some of whom were injured and every one of whom was exhausted, but goddammit they had gotten out.
Bucky turned to Ashley, smiling broadly now. “I can’t believe we made it.”
“I can’t believe we’re alive,” Ashley replied with the same inflection. Bucky only smiled wider at her, and for a moment they seemed to forget about every complication that they’d have to face in the near future, instead focusing on enjoying the improbable success of something neither of them started in the first place.
Steve laid Arthur’s body gently against a nearby tree while he addressed the soldiers. “Listen up, everyone. My transponder was damaged during the fighting, so I can’t call for reinforcements. We’re on our own here.”
There was a murmur of discontent among the soldiers before the general consensus became conveyed by the drawled words of a redhead in a bowler hat. “Then I guess we’d better start walking.”
If Ashley had seen the Winter Soldier’s face following the seconds it took her to collapse via blackout, she still probably wouldn’t have noticed anything close to recognition, and certainly nothing comparable to concern.
In any case, she would not have seen the slight widening of his eyes the moment Ashley stumbled back after seeing his face, the fear that covered her features like blood spatter. Even Steve didn’t register the way Bucky’s hands tightened on the gun reflexively at the pain that registered soon after her fear and just before her complete collapse onto the street, suddenly and without reason.
Any visible action Bucky might have taken was cut off when the gun pointed at Steve flew from his hands as the result of a robotic angel man kicking it from him, sending him to the ground. Before he could even react to that, the Winter Solider fled from the explosion of the RPG landing where he previously stood, smoke disguising his retreat like a shifting curtain. Whether he might have run to the woman otherwise could no longer be determined, his brain too busy processing what actually happened to focus on what-ifs.
Just as Ashley and Steve missed nuances, the Winter Soldier missed the aftermath of a mass of memories clawing at Ashley’s brain all at once, each one demanding her attention first.
Through the blackness, Ashley saw a battered firing range pinging with bullets, feeling herself smile in spite of an everything she didn’t know. The sight of an antique piano, pointedly empty of any player materialized in front of it, overlapping with another flash of smoke and trees, too familiar in its haziness. Worse was when the images passed too quickly for her to see, because though Ashley couldn’t register what the images were, every single emotion attached to them felt real and different, slamming into her heart with lightning speed and the pain of being eviscerated every time.
Of course, Steve Rogers didn’t know this key information either. All he could see was his friend writhing on the ground, eyes squeezed shut like lives depended on it, and the swarm of Hydra agents descending on the four of them like vultures, just with bigger guns. Their presence remained secondary to Ashley in Steve’s eyes, at least for the present moment, as he fell to the ground beside her, his hands reaching out to help her but not knowing what to actually do with them.
After a moment’s hesitation, with the encouragement of the guns encasing them in a solid death trap, Steve pulled Ashley into his arms, her lower half still on the gravel, but at least her head was supported. Up close, he could see that Ashley’s eyes were closed, but her eyelids convulsed with effort. Whatever she was seeing, Steve knew it would only bring more questions he couldn’t answer.
“Ashley,” Steve said desperately. Her movement lessened marginally, but Rumlow was already commanding them to get in the van, apparently dissuaded from just shooting them in broad daylight, which seemed like the logical choice. The Hydra agents certainly felt no sympathy for a woman who once told them they were just a bunch of assholes hiding behind their guns at a time when they appeared to be on the same side.
At the time, Steve had been livid at her for being so unnecessarily rude, but in retrospect, he had to admit she happened to be a great judge of character.
The Strike team seemed perfectly content to leave Ashley behind, maybe shoot her a few times for good measure, but Steve still thought she could wake up there. “Ashley, come on.”
A faint smile. “Whatever makes you happy, Bucky,” she murmured, barely more than a whisper, but Steve heard every word. He even understood them, and with the sudden revelation, scooped Ashley off the ground and carried her into the van, figuring that carting her off to their mutual demise was better than leaving her for dead.
Despite her obvious incapacitation, the vindictive Strike agents insisted on the iron handcuffs, which branded her skin almost instantly, leaving it crackling at the metal’s touch. Her hands clenched once they clicked onto her wrist, and Steve felt her chest heave at the sharp pain.
The van took off at an alarming rate. Ashley drooped onto Steve’s arm, still spiraling in her thoughts. “What’s with the special handcuffs?” Sam asked, nodding his head toward Ashley.
Steve looked down at her, felt the cold radiating off of her, nearly searing in its intensity. “Iron. It nulls her powers.”
“Isn’t she Iron Man’s kid?” he asked, still studying her like she was a side attraction at a freak show, curious and only slightly afraid.
“Trust me, she’s aware of the irony,” Steve said with a distracted smile.
Natasha pivoted the conversation toward important matters. It was a valid pivot, but Steve would have preferred to avoid it at all costs. “What the hell is happening to her, Steve?”
He sighed, which made Ashley’s position shift slightly off his shoulder, resting precariously. “I knew her. During the war.”
The sight of Natasha genuinely surprised seemed to indicate to Steve that he’d at least done a decent job of keeping Ashley’s bombshell secret. “I’m sorry, you what?”
“Look, you know that she’s connected to the Tesseract...” Off of Sam’s confused yet inexplicably demanding expression, Steve said, “As far as I can tell, Ashley's been connected to the Tesseract since the war.”
“I thought she only absorbed it after the explosion,” Natasha said, to which Steve could only shrug.
Sam looked back at Ashley. “So you’re telling me she’s been alive since 1943?”
“Something like that,” Steve said. “But she,” he took another breath, “Died, in between. She died right before I ended up in the ice. Imagine my surprise when she shows up on the Helicarrier saying she’s Tony’s adopted kid, had no idea that she used to be the right-hand man of a grandfather she’d never even met.”
Natasha’s brow was creased in thought. “Why didn’t you tell her?”
“Because she didn’t remember it.” He trailed off, shaking his head absently, eyes unfocused with heavy thought. “And I wasn't sure, not entirely. There was something different about her. I thought maybe she was just a distant relative. After New York... That's when I knew."
Sam’s expression teetered on a fine line between shock and incredulity, both of which synthesized seamlessly into a rather dynamic appearance. “I’m sorry, but why the hell would you not tell her this?”
“She didn't want to know,” Steve said finally, trying to phrase things the right way. “She wasn't supposed to remember anything. Told me she wanted it that way.” He turned back to Natasha. “During the invasion, when she touched the cube, that was when everything started coming back. Before that, nothing. She had no idea who I was.”
Natasha nodded slowly, and Steve saw the questions forming behind her eyes. “But now her memories are coming back.”
“I think being around things connected to that past are bringing back those memories,” Steve said carefully, answering her unsaid question. The conversation was once again veering in the direction of a topic he still didn’t quite know how to process. How was it that two of his dead friends managed to reappear seventy years later looking almost the same as when he’d watched them die?
Though he tried his best to be only subtly evasive, Natasha homed in on his attempted omissions. “What else triggered her, other than you?”
Steve sighed. “Well, living with Howard Stark’s son can’t be great. All of this talk of Hydra. And... the Winter Solider.”
Now it was Sam’s turn to demand further information. “What does that guy have to do with any of this?”
Biting the inside of his cheek, Steve took a moment before responding as carefully as he could, glancing briefly to make sure Ashley was still asleep. She was, her head a familiar weight on his shoulder, mouth opened just a little to add realism. “His name is Bucky Barnes. He was my best friend, before he died in 1943. But he didn’t even recognize me.”
There was a moment where Steve watched his friend go back to his elementary history class and connect the dots from there. “How's that even possible? It was like seventy years ago,” Sam asked.
An epiphany seemed too precise a word. Steve’s thought process was more of a speed-version of connect the dots. “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...” he trailed off, the guilt compounding.
“None of that's your fault, Steve,” Natasha said, not unkindly.
“Even when I had nothing, I had Bucky.” Steve said, then looked over at Ashley, who didn’t stir in the slightest. “And he loved her.”
Natasha met Steve’s eyes, concerned, but there was an inevitable undertone of curiosity. Despite this, she didn’t probe. She knew enough. More than Ashley, at any rate. With that in mind, she said, “You’ve got to tell her, Steve.”
He shook his head, looking like he was the one who’d been shot. “You don’t understand. This is her only chance.”
There were plenty of practical skills that Ashley Grey was well within her rights to claim possession of, but none of those involved an innate sense of measuring distance. Or time, for that matter, aside from following the obvious markers of days and nights. So as the mass of liberated soldiers marched on, with her near the helm of the slow-moving charge, Ashley really couldn’t think of any productive way to spend her time, other than pointedly ignoring the existence of the prisoner they had guarded on the top of the tank they were carting back with them.
“Penny for your thoughts?” Bucky said, appearing from nowhere, adjusting his stride so that his pace matched hers.
Ashley smiled slightly, but she refused to be won over that easily. “Is that all they’re worth to you?”
“It’s all I’ve got,” he said with a shrug, smiling back at her.
She shook her head. “God, you’re a walking cliché.”
“Look, I’m sure I can be more creative once I’m not running on factory fumes, but for now, this is what you’re stuck with,” Bucky said, putting his hands in his pockets with a noncommittal shrug, even as he watched her carefully.
The banter was solid, but Ashley knew he was waiting for her to give something away. What exactly he was waiting for, though, she had no idea. Well, she had one idea. And she didn't feel stuck with anything, not that she could say it in so many words. “I’m okay with that,” she said instead, voice soft.
Bucky glanced the other direction, trying to hide the vulnerable little smile that pierced his features at her words. When he turned back, he tried his best to appear only mildly interested. “So how are you doing?”
Ashley glowered at him as his eyes wandered down to and lingered on her abdomen, which she’d wrapped with fabric to keep him from asking these exact stupid questions. Apparently, it hadn’t been enough. “I’m fine,” she said. Bucky narrowed his eyes at her. “It was just a graze.”
He scoffed. “Right. And the puddle of blood you left on the floor was just decoration.”
She grinned as cryptically as she could. “I prefer to think of it as 'perfecting an aesthetic.'”
“What does that even mean?” Bucky said, bunching up his shoulders and looking comically frustrated, searching for some answer in the tree line.
“It means you’ve got to stop worrying about me. You’re the one we just liberated from a prison camp.” She stopped, then added, “Tell me about you.”
Though she seemed genuinely concerned, Bucky recognized how skillful Ashley was at avoiding answers to anything she didn’t want to offer readily. He admired it enough to let it go. “I could be worse, all things considered.”
It was the wrong thing to say. Ashley winced, doing her best to contain the jolt of emotion, but Bucky didn’t miss a thing. “Yeah, I guess so,” she said, pushing away unwanted visions of Bucky on the operating table, left alone to die.
“Thanks for coming to save me,” he said, trying to rebuild the bridge he’d burned, despite not understanding what exactly it was. A silence fell over them, and Bucky was determined not to let it stay. He nodded absently in the direction of Steve, who was speaking to a few soldiers to his right, probably giving them the pep talk of their lives. Bucky smiled faintly at him. “It’s really weird seeing him like this, you know. I knew him when he was half my size.”
Ashley followed his eyes. “He must really care about you, coming all this way just on the off-chance that you were alive.”
Bucky turned back to her, eyes pressing hers for something. “You’re here, too.”
She shrugged. “Only excuse Howard would buy as a sick day,” she said, her tone dry even as her face warmed.
“Sounds like a terrible boss,” Bucky said, playing along, staring off at the trees.
“I know, right?” They exchanged small smiles, and the conversation dipped back into silence, though this time there was a certain comfort in it. Still, Ashley fought a quiet battle with herself before she said, after a breath, “I’m really glad you’re okay, Bucky.”
Bucky nodded. It was all he could do. “Likewise.”
The next time the conversation trailed off, it was a matter of circumstance rather than a mutual reluctance to voice unsaid thoughts. Instead, Ashley found herself being paged by the Captain himself. “Yes, sir,” she said, saluting in her most formal manner.
Steve didn’t roll his eyes, but it was like the rest of his face had done it for him. “You ever going to tell me why you asked me to bring back a Hydra agent from a rescue mission?”
“It’s not exactly at the top of my bucket list.”
“Ashley.” His eyes met hers with hard purpose. They were so earnest that Ashley felt guilt pang in her chest just at the thought of hiding things from him. The act itself was nearly unbearable.
“Look, I told you I was here for personal reasons.”
He sighed, shoulders raising as though he was preparing for another fight, then falling at the same controlled rate. “I know you did. But what does it have to do with him?”
She looked back at Arthur’s unconscious body, which currently laid sprawled out across the top of a tank, where two well-armed soldiers sat lazily trading stories while he dozed on. When he woke up, Ashley wondered if he’d bother trying to leave, or if perhaps he’d ran and get himself killed early rather than tell her the truth. At the present moment, however, Ashley had other issues to consider. “I know him.”
“I gathered that,” Steve said, though the words were not as biting as she’d been expecting.
Ashley shook her head. “No, I mean I know him.”
The conclusion that Steve drew was obviously incorrect, but Ashley preferred it that way. If she was honest with herself, it was the one she’d intended for him, avoiding any full-out lie, but certainly not truthful in the eyes of one Captain Freaking America. His eyes grew to cannonball size before his smooth recovery. “Okay, then.”
He clearly wanted to question this more, but Ashley’s expression projected an absolutely undeniable desire of not wanting to discuss the matter further, and Steve appeared willing to honor her unspoken request.
She returned to Bucky’s side casually and without fanfare, and when Bucky asked her what had happened, she simply told him the truth, one that did not mislead the listener, instead opting for more vagueness in uncomfortable areas of discussion. Particularly the actual reason she wanted Arthur nearby. “He asked me about the Hydra agent.”
“And?” he asked carefully, as though he was risking the world by asking her for transparency.
“You were standing five feet away. You’re telling me you didn’t hear?” she said, though with a small smile.
Bucky’s head bobbed up in a half nod, but despite the odd visual he didn’t seem as amused. “Ash, he tried to kill you.” They both knew the end of that thought was that he'd almost done it, too.
“It doesn’t matter,” she said quietly.
His eyes clearly disagreed, speaking emphatically for the rest of him. “What is that supposed to mean?”
Ashley felt the argument rising between them, the tension quickly unraveling whatever light-hearted banter they’d formed before. “It just means I wasn’t leaving him there.”
He narrowed his eyes and looked away. Not angry, just unhappy. “Okay.”
Though Bucky seemed to be upset at the agent’s presence for what he did to Ashley, she wondered if maybe it also bothered him because of what he’d just gone through. Being a prisoner wasn’t something Ashley ever wanted to relive, but she did, and the room Steve found Bucky seemed to suggest an experience as horrific as her own.
With that in mind, Ashley suddenly felt inclined to give Bucky a better answer, make him understand without understanding too much. “He’s not just a Hydra agent to me, Bucky.”
That got her a look, a raised eyebrow and nothing more. She wanted to reach out to him, pull him against her so she could whisper the truth in his ear, but the din of the conversing soldiers all around them would have to be enough. After all, they were only a few hours in. It wouldn’t last long. “When Steve was organizing his solo mission and I found out it was your unit that had been captured, I already wanted to help. But when I realized where the base was, I suspected that he was there, too.”
“His name is Arthur,” she said, closing her eyes against an odd wave of emotions. “I didn’t know he was a Hydra agent until he was dragging me to the feet of Johann Schmidt.”
Bucky lurched back at this revelation. “You saw him? Do you know what he is?”
Ashley met his eyes, deadpan. “A massive dick.”
He took a moment before nodding, his silence willing Ashley to go on.
“I thought he was a POW like you. He lied to me, tricked me. And I don’t understand why,” she said, heart being wrung out inside her chest.
“Ashley, he’s a Hydra agent. They’re evil.”
She forced a small smile, appreciating the attempt at comfort, not willing to admit that made it worse.
“Are you sure she actually died? Maybe she’s like Bucky,” Sam’s voice said, sound muffled by what Ashley realized was her head's current position tucked into her friend's shoulder. Though she disliked the position in terms of her ever-growing irritation with Steve's existence, the dislike was not compelling enough to stir her from her admittedly-comfortable spot, or otherwise give away that she had woken up.
Steve shook his head, making the muscles on his shoulder shift ever so slightly, and Ashley disliked the movement of her makeshift pillow. She tried her best to ignore it. “First thing I checked. But she’s been living with Stark since she was a kid. Pictures and everything.”
“Does Tony know?” Natasha asked.
“I didn’t tell anyone.” Again with the shifting. Coupled with the bumps and lurches customary for riding in a van, Ashley had had enough, secret-spilling or no.
“Stop-moving-for-the-love-of-everything.” It came out as a very long word instead of a coherent sentence, but she could have said pretty much anything and it would have garnered the same response. Steve turned violently to look at her, thus entirely ruining her makeshift pillow. She glared at him. “That’s the opposite of what I asked.”
“Look at you, back from the dead,” Natasha said, shifting into her bored drawl.
Ashley watched Steve’s eyes flicker over to her, hardening for a second before shifting back to Ashley, full of concern. “You alright?”
Ashley raised an eyebrow at him and held up her chained wrists. “I mean, other than the complete feeling of powerlessness and the agonizing burning of my skin, I think I’m doing okay.” She surveyed the rest of the group. “You?”
Natasha smiled thinly, and Ashley noticed the blood dribbling down from her shoulder like rainwater on a window. Just red and more worrisome. “Swell.”
“When the hell did you get shot?” Ashley asked, brow creasing as she tried to reconcile the image of Natasha being anything less than invincible.
“A little before you collapsed into a useless heap of magic,” Natasha said, smirking despite the obvious pain.
“Touché. Side note, is there any chance we’re not currently being driven to our doom?”
Sam shook his head. “I asked. They wouldn’t let us stop for donuts.”
“Barbarians,” Ashley said, then repeated the sentiment at the two guards sitting against the front part of the van. “Haven’t you ever heard of a last meal?”
Based on the look he gave her, Ashley would never have guessed that Steve missed her, much less was still worried about her. Instead, he appeared ready to gag her himself, giving her that all-too-familiar look of resigned frustration. “Ashley.”
She raised an eyebrow at him. “Don’t think I’m not still pissed at you just because we’re about to die. I’m an excellent grudge holder. Besides," she smiled at him with something close to smugness, "Apparently it wouldn’t be my first time.”
Steve started at that last bit, and though Ashley was no longer touching him, she could see the surprise play out on his face, see the gears turning as he considered what she might now know. “Ashley-“
“Look, we need to get a doctor here. We don't put pressure on that wound, she's gonna bleed out here in the truck,” Sam said, taking new interest in Natasha and her pallid appearance.
The guard on the left brandished an electric baton at Sam, holding it just inches from his throat, before they twisted it in their hand and plunged it against the neck of their fellow guard, sending them sputtering to a slumped position across the bench. Without a word, the lovely traitor guard put away the baton and pulled off the massive black helmet, revealing the familiar face of Agent Hill.
“Ah. That thing was squeezing my brain.” She tilted her head at Sam, looking at Steve. “Who's this guy?”
Ashley read about Mouse Holes in the Shield files that she had had absolutely no access to whatsoever, but this was the first time she’d seen one in real life. It cut through her handcuffs like they were tissue paper, and it did the same for the metal floor of the van, sending them all to freedom with the same irritating lack of effort.
Naturally, their intended destination was some safehouse in the middle of nowhere, and by the time they got there, Natasha no longer kept up her witty banter, her skin void of any color, face hard from obvious denial of pain. Steve stayed by her side, arm around her as she leaned into him, and Ashley and Sam followed behind them.
Maria brought up the charge, and once they entered the compound, they caught sight of a small man in a suit running toward them. “GSW. She’s lost at least a pint.”
“Maybe two,” Sam added.
The group was taken to what appeared to be a medical center, but rather than seeking the immediate treatment of Natasha’s wound, they were greeted with the surreal image of Director Fury laid out on a hospital bed, attached to more than enough wires and tubes to last a lifetime. “What the actual hell,” Ashley said, narrowing her eyes at him.
Fury glowered at her. “I should have known you’d get yourself involved with this somehow. You ever find your way back into our system?”
“No,” Ashley said, breaking eye contact only to watch Steve guide Natasha over to another table, where the on-site doctor seemed more than desperate to start patching her up.
Ashley raised an eyebrow. “Says the dead man.”
Sam looked between them, then turned to Ashley, who seemed ready to storm off into the distance. “So no love lost here, huh?”
If she had the energy to smile, she might have done it then. Instead, Ashley just glanced sideways at Sam, not saying a word. Once Natasha was being seen to, Steve walked over to them, and Ashley scrounged up the energy to roll her eyes at him and walk away, although not before saying, “Glad you’re alive, Fury. I’ll send you a card.”
A few strides down the hallway, she stopped and turned back to face Steve and Sam, who were exchanging glances with a meaning Ashley could guess without examining in the slightest. “Actually, I think I want answers more than I want space. Let’s go.” She waved a hand at Steve, beckoning him like a stern schoolteacher.
Steve gave her a look that featured the common characteristics of annoyance and dread, with the end result not actually appearing much different than his usual brooding stare. Nevertheless, with one more look at Sam, then Natasha, he followed Ashley down the hall. “Look, Ash, I-“
“Nope, not yet, I’m thinking,” she said, hearing him sigh in response, her gaze pointedly fixed on the end of the hall. She led them out of the compound, something which took both of them by surprise, two pairs of feet crunching the gravel for a few more paces until Ashley finally stopped, looking at the forest landscape in front of them, hating it with an unexpected passion. After a moment, Ashley realized she may have been projecting the emotion just slightly. “So I died,” she said quietly.
Steve met her eyes, a move she didn’t think he had in him. “I think so.”
“What the hell does that mean?” she said, her voice raising in correlation with her building frustration. “Steve, I’m so in the dark here. You of all people should know how that feels.”
His chest rose and fell before he said anything. “I know. And I’m sorry.”
“Why won’t you tell me what’s going on?” She bit her lip to keep it from doing something stupid. “You’re my friend.”
“Ash, you’ve gotta believe that I would tell you if I could,” he said, facing her now, close enough to touch her but not stupid enough to try.
“This is ridiculous. Why can’t you just be honest with me? All of this stupid fighting and keeping secrets, it’s like a goddamn soap opera.”
Steve smiled weakly at her outburst. “You’re right. But you’ve got to trust me on this.”
“I trust you on everything, asshole,” she said, exasperated. “I trusted you not to keep secrets from me.”
“Then trust me when I say I need to keep this one.” Ashley studied his face, saw in earnest how much he believed that what he was doing was right.
She knew that anything Steve did, he always wanted to be doing the right thing. Though she didn’t quite understand what possessed him to believe hiding things from her was right, she recognized that he wasn’t going to budge. That didn’t mean she wasn’t going to keep putting the pieces together, though, with or without him. “Fine," she said, her voice thick with the strain of her compromise as she tried to set aside her anger. "In the name of saving the world, I suggest a temporary truce.”
He nodded slightly, daring to appear vaguely amused as she put her hand out for him. When he took it, Steve nearly jerked back from the coldness radiating off of it. “Ashley?”
Pulling back her hand, she wiggled her fingers absently, stretching them like she’d just finished writing a midterm paper. “Sorry. Tesseract juice is coming back all at once. Burn scars are fading, too, look.” She pulled up her sleeve and revealed the furious red band around her wrist. It looked like someone had cut out a band around her skin, then sewed it up with brutal precision.
“Jesus, Ash, why?”
“It’s not my fault I’ve got an iron allergy,” she said, hiding the mess under her sleeve again, surprised at how quickly the tension dissolved, at least partially. Steve smiled at her, and she said, “Hey, Steve?”
He disliked the tone of the question. “Yeah?”
“The Winter Soldier… Who is he?”
Steve took a deep breath. "Ash..."
"You can't keep everything from me, Steve. You can tell me this at least, right?" she asked, annoyed at how close she came to wheedling.
He sighed, then nodded. "His name is Bucky Barnes." As much as he was able to, he told her about Bucky, though she knew enough from the history classes. Still, the books didn’t quite capture the emotional attachment of having a childhood best friend die in front of you. In fact, Ashley was pretty sure the whole ordeal only got a paragraph. Maybe a colorful side bar, if historians were feeling bold. At the end of it, Steve looked tired, weary-eyed. “He didn’t even recognize me.”
Ashley abandoned thoughts of institutionalized learning and took Steve’s hand gently. The coolness of her hand had by then returned to normal temperatures. He squeezed it. “I knew him,” she said after a while, soft as she could.
Steve’s hand loosened in surprise. “Ash?”
“When I saw him on the bridge, I saw a younger version of him, just like I saw a different version of you.” Now Steve’s hand retracted entirely, and he even took a half step back from her when he realized what he’d done. “I’m not an idiot, Steve. I might not have all of the pieces yet, but I’ve got enough. Some other version of me was alive during the war. You knew me. I knew Bucky, too.” She paused and looked down at her feet, not ashamed but something similar. “He meant something to me.”
A vision flashed in her head. More of a feeling, really, of her body pressed against another, holding him tight against her, not wanting to let go of the warmth she missed feeling herself whenever he wasn’t around. She pressed a kiss to his cheek before burying her head back in his shoulder. Despite not seeing his face, she knew who it was.
She blinked furiously and realized Steve had both hands on her shoulders, keeping her upright as she swayed from the aftershock of a mental explosion. His eyes found hers. “You're okay, Ash. You're okay.”
Ashley closed her eyes and recovered the rest of her balance. She smiled at him faintly. “He used to call me ‘doll.’”
When they marched onto the base, it was like the parting of the Red Sea, insofar as everyone moved the hell out of their way, looking stunned at what was nothing short of a miracle. Steve led them all straight into the arms of Colonel Phillips, whose wilted face hadn’t lost any of its grumpiness since they’d been gone, and surrendered himself for disciplinary action. Ashley stepped up beside him, meeting the Colonel’s eyes briefly, feeling his distaste like it had been carved into her spleen before he directed his attention back to the Captain. “That won’t be necessary, Captain.”
The Colonel walked away, but not before muttering something to Agent Carter, who strode up to Steve with the composure of a trained dancer, though her expression was simply a more pleasant version of the Colonel’s.
Howard found Ashley in the crowd and pushed his way over to her, interrupting her people-watching. “And here I thought I’d never see you again.”
Ashley smiled, relieve at his familiar, ever-friendly face. “Sorry about your luck.”
He pulled her into a tight hug, which Ashley only accepted because she was tired and ungodly cold and didn't have the energy to push him away. “I really thought we’d lost you, there,” he said, and Ashley found herself hugging him back.
Bucky watched the interactions unfold, looking between Steve and Ashley, literally standing in the middle of two reunions. He watched Ashley, smiling as she reunited with her friend, before turning to his own. Seeing his best friend so victorious and heroic caused a surge of pride, and with a grin, Bucky made it known. “Let’s hear it for Captain America,” he said loudly, and the crowd around him erupted into cheers.
Separating from Howard following the display of patriotism and can-do spirit, Ashley rejoined Bucky, sidling up close to him as she said, “Never took you for a cheering kind of guy.”
“There’s a lot of things you don’t know about me,” he said, staring off into the distance like a melodramatic movie star before catching her eye. The nonsense made her laugh, which was always the goal.
"Yeah?" Ashley bumped his shoulder gently as they both looked over the crowd. The same guys who only a week before were content to throw rotten fruit at Steve were now smiling and hollering as loudly for him as the guys he'd saved from hell. “Like what, soldier?”
“Well, for one, I wasn’t always a soldier, doll,” he said, looking at her with a self-amused smirk.
She shook her head, but she was holding back a fully-lit grin. “You don’t say. What were you then? A bar crawler?”
He glanced at her, faux irritation glittering in his eyes. “You say that like it’s a bad thing.” Bucky shrugged, trying to seem nonchalant. “It’s how I met you.”
“God, you’re the worst,” she said with a laugh as she took his hand, not really thinking about the movement, just reaching out and finding him there. If Bucky was surprised, he didn’t show it, just relaxed his fingers casually so she could lace them with his. “No wonder I punched you.”
Around them, the din of cheering started to die down as the soldiers ran out of steam, many because they’d been on their feet for days, not unlike Bucky and Ashley. As the soldiers began to disperse, Bucky smiled at her and said, “I guess we should probably get some sleep.”
“That does sound smart, huh,” she said tiredly. Despite herself, she yawned. Their fingers made no effort to separate, and neither of their owners bothered to acknowledge the predicament. “But I suppose I’ll see you tonight, anyways.”
He raised an eyebrow at her. “Yeah?”
Only then did she untangle her fingers from his, the warmth of his hand lost, making her hand feel bare. “I’ll see you at the bar. We’ll have a good time.”
“You don’t drink,” he said. It was a question, and Ashley adored it.
She shrugged. “You don’t have to come.”
Bucky shook his head, looking off to the side with a faint smile. “I’ll bring tissues this time," he said. "Maybe gauze.”
As she walked off toward what was presumably a place of rest, she called, “You’d better,” and left Bucky to wonder if perhaps he’d actually need them.
In the meantime, Steve met his eyes, clearly having questions. Which was just as well, because so did Bucky. "How's it going, pal?" Bucky asked innocently.
Being on Howard Stark’s payroll had to have some perks to it, Ashley realized. At the very least, it meant she could stockpile pretty things that she never intended to use without feeling much guilt. Any residual guilt she'd had completely dissipated when Ashley pulled out her favorite impulse buy, throwing it on with flair instead of conventional grace before running out the door. Or tent, rather. For a moment, she wondered if it was too much, the dress and the baubles. Then she imagined the reaction she would get, and that train of thought was hard to resist.
The bar, understandably, pulsed with the life of a victory. Bawdy tunes lilted through the air, which hummed with energy. Nurses and soldiers danced wherever there was room, scraping along the floor to whatever beat they could suss out from the nonsense. Those who weren’t dancing were drinking and laughing.
No one in sight seemed out of place, everyone grinning the night away like lives were at stake. Ashley weaved through the crowd in search of faces she cared about. She found Steve and Bucky toward the back of the bar, a slightly more subdued place since the dance floor was partially blocked by an arched entryway. As Ashley stepped through it, she saw Bucky find her, cutting short whatever sentence he’d been spouting at his friend, drink in hand clattering onto the bar counter.
The dress didn’t flash the same way the red one did, low cut and fitted like a too-small glove. Instead, it seemed to shimmer through the background like a mirage, an oasis of royal blue, outshone only by the diamonds glittering unassumingly across her neckline and the smile that spread across her face when she met Bucky’s eyes.
He stood up as she walked over to them, smile pushing at the corners of his mouth. “Hi.”
She raised an eyebrow at him. She'd made him almost speechless. “Incredible,” Ashley said, referring to this feat.
“You are,” Bucky said, almost in a daze but trying to recover.
Ashley shook her head, bemused, turning to Steve. “Having a good time, Captain?”
Steve looked over at Bucky, then turned back to smile at her. “Something like that. You?”
“I’ve had worse days,” she said, pushing her hair behind her ear, which was laced with silver and baby diamonds.
“Yeah, I bet,” Steve said with that signature tact. “Listen, I’m gonna go grab a drink. You want anything?”
Ashley glanced at the bar Steve had just been sitting at and said, “Gin and tonic.”
Steve’s face flashed in surprise. “Bucky told me you didn’t-“
“Bye, Steve,” she sang. He took the out like any smart man would, and Ashley watched him leave, catching the look he shared with his childhood friend before disappearing into the crowd.
Bucky turned to her, ever the graceful playboy, smirking pleasantly at her. “Smooth operator, that one.” He shook his head. “You look beautiful tonight.”
She raised an eyebrow at him, smiling. “As opposed to when?”
He leaned back, shaking his head, shoulders rolling as he mounted some sort of defense. “You really don’t make things easy, do you?”
“Do you want me to be easy?” she said, now watching him with an amused glimmer in her eyes that reminded him of an evil child. He told her so, and she laughed, eyes crinkling like cellophane, and it made Bucky’s heart tighten mercilessly.
“Dance with me,” he said when her laughter started to fade, tilting his head at her to see her from a new angle, though she was fascinating from all sides.
The request startled her, and it was all Ashley could do not to let it register on her face. “I don’t do that.”
Bucky’s brow furrowed, but he still managed to sound like he was on the verge of laughter. “What, you don’t like dancing?”
Ashley made a face. “You know how everyone has one of those things that no matter how desperately they ever tried to learn, they were never any good and would always be an absolute disaster at it?”
He raised an eyebrow, smile sneaking onto his face like a well-meaning crook, and Ashley debated slapping it off. “I don’t think that’s a universal situation.”
Glowering, Ashley sat down at the bar like a stubborn child. “You’re being rude.”
Taking the seat next to her, Bucky picked up his almost forgotten glass, swirled its contents around for a few moments before downing the remains. “Ah. Alright,” he said, setting down the glass as quickly as he’d taken it. “Come on, let’s go.” He gestured at Ashley to stand, who followed the command with as much incredulity and disgust as she could muster, but she had to admit she was somewhat entertained.
“If you think you’re somehow going to transform me into Cinderella, it’s not going to happen.”
“Not Cinderella. Too many mice,” he said, holding out his hand to her. She reached out for it slowly, and once their hands touched, it felt like they’d been shocked together like live wires. Gently, he urged her toward him, and Ashley found herself being led to the dance floor, which was buzzing with life like a wasps’ nest. But Ashley, for all the inexplicable pull toward Bucky, felt herself pulling back.
Feeling this hesitation, Bucky turned towards her, letting go of her hand in favor of guiding her close to him. Inches apart, he met her eyes, placing his hands on her shoulders. “Do you trust me, doll?”
Ashley could see it was an important question, but when her mouth opened, as she knew would happen, no words came out. She was spared confrontation by the godsend posing as Colonel Phillips, whose presence broke apart the potential ruins of a conversation with the words: “You’re needed at the detention cell.”
Spinning toward the sound of pretense, shrugging Bucky’s hands off in the process, Ashley looked to all the world rapt and concerned by the Colonel’s presence, when at least two people knew this wasn’t true. She felt Bucky’s eyes sting her back as she faced the Colonel. “For what?”
“The prisoner is asking to speak with you.”
Whatever miracle she’d been stupid enough to believe could be hers, Ashley knew it was nothing but lies when she saw Bucky’s gaze shift downward out of the corner of her eye, looking more wounded than he had at the camp. “Since when do you care what some POW wants?”
“Since he’s the only Hydra operative we’ve got who didn’t kill himself right off the bat.”
Ashley nodded, pursing her lips in mock consideration. “So because that asshole didn’t have the common decency to choke on cyanide, I’m now expected to be a pawn in whatever game you’re playing.”
Ordinarily, she would have debated whether to spit at his feet or storm in the opposite direction. She was off the clock and owed him no allegiance regardless. But somehow a confrontation with Arthur was better than her current situation, which is why she paused the polite amount of time to pretend to mull over the situation, then nodded once in the affirmative before leaving Bucky alone in a bar full of people.
The phone on the other line refused to acknowledge her presence even on the fifth and final demand of Ashley punching in its number like the incessant poking of a child demanding attention. She supposed the comparison wasn’t too far off, especially when Tony’s voice came through in the form of pre-recorded nonsense. “You’ve reached Tony Stark. Feel free to leave a message, just know the likelihood of me actually getting it rests on whether or not Jarvis decides you're worth listening to. And he's very picky.”
“Yeah, Jarvis is picky,” Ashley muttered before the phone beeped its signal to start. She suddenly forgot the functions of words, not to mention their common usage, something that Ashley had thought impossible given her tendency to use them at length. “Hey, Tony, just calling to check in, see how you were doing.”
Fully aware that she sounded like an old acquaintance trying to call in a favor, she soldiered on regardless, cringing the whole time. “Not even sure if you’ll get this message or if Jarvis will filter it out as junk mail or some shit, but I figured I’d have to try. Not that he would, if he knows that it's me, I know, but I just… Look, I’m not sure what’s gonna happen today -things have gotten a little weird since I left- so I wanted to tell you that I’m sorry. For everything. You know what I mean. Just everything.” She closed her eyes, shaking her head at herself. “Just… you’d better not do anything stupid while I’m not around to stop you. Hypothetically speaking. Okay, that’s all I’ve got.”
“If you are happy with your message, press one. To rerecord, press 2. To delete your message—”
The single push of the button seemed less therapeutic than those previous. It felt more like the end of an era than the justified assault of a flurry of numbers. Ashley sighed, gripping the phone tightly in her hand before staring at it, willing it to shatter into irredeemable pieces. The screen snapped and turned into an artistic statement while the keys of the keyboard deflated like neglected souffle. “God, why am I like this?”
“I think you’re gonna have to be more specific than that,” Natasha said from the doorway, which she was leaning against with impressive ease for having a useless shoulder to work with.
Ashley looked up at her, one side of her mouth quirked into something reminiscent of a lazy smile. “Not sure I can.” She held up the burner and tossed it to Natasha. “Kind of a hot mess in general.”
Catching the phone with ease, she pocketed the broken loan and pointed her head in the direction of the rest of the group. “Still ready for a fight?”
“I tend to be,” Ashley said, walking over to Natasha with newfound purpose. “But this feels more like a war.”
Natasha smiled at her, not broadly or freely, but at least it was there. “What’s the difference?”
They walked down the hallway in silence before Ashley laughed to herself and said, “I don’t remember.”
The rest of them had obviously been furthering their plotting while Ashley decided to make a phone call. They looked like a knock-off version of the Round Table, everyone equally small against the massive corporation they were about to give the middle finger to. Naturally, the king himself was leaning against the table, staring across at the one-eyed king overthrown, but this time they both knew where they stood. One of them was wearing the star-spangled banner, after all. Ashley vaguely wondered what collector’s shop he’d stolen the uniform from but figured she’d ask when the future of the world wasn’t at stake.
Fury saw Ashley walk in, turning one eye toward her with the intensity of twenty, concentrated like a gun a stroke away from firing. “Look who decided to join us.”
“You turn into more of a trope every time I see you, Fury. Next you’ll be telling me to sit this one out and let the men handle it,” she said, raising an eyebrow at Fury in challenge.
He leveled a glare at her, so she winked and turned her attention to the people who didn’t hate her guts.
Agent Hill opened the case that held the chips programmed to recalibrate the helicarriers, and Ashley took one while Sam and Steve took the other two. “Nice outfit, by the way,” she said to Steve, who met her eyes but didn’t bother glowering. At this point, it was just a waste of energy.
Sam smirked at her. “Where’s yours?”
Ashley shrugged. “Left it at home. But at least I’ve got my boots.” She kicked out her foot to show off her combat boots, the loves of her life, which had somehow managed to survive the flurry of assault their owner had endured that day.
Sam shook his head at her. “Those things are gonna get torn to shreds.”
“Be quiet, they can hear you,” she said in hushed tones. Sam rolled his eyes, and Ashley smiled vaguely at him. “We’re gonna be best friends, bud. You know, assuming we don’t all die in a massive Hydro inferno.”
Steve looked over at Natasha, the former obviously done with the world and not just Ashley’s childish antics. Natasha just smirked and grabbed her set of supplies from behind Maria, a cybernetic mask and a horrid outfit that made her thankful Tony went along with her “business casual, heavy on the casual” demands.
“Alright, team, let’s move out,” Steve said, and everyone in the first wave of a two-wave attack headed for the battle field via stolen unmarked van. Natasha sidled up beside Ashley, who responded with a probing look. When Natasha said nothing, Ashley just said, “You know, you get the fun job. I’d kill to be able to punch Pierce in the face. Repeatedly. And without mercy.”
“‘Fun’ might not be the word I’d use for any of this,” she replied, amused despite the statement. “Not sure this would have been my first career choice.”
Ashley nodded. “Yeah, but it sure adds to the resume.”
When they arrived at the communications center with less problems than they deserved, Ashley shifted the energy around the four of them into something unassuming, which made her break out into an instant cold sweat as they moved up to the door under the scrutiny of so many well-trained agents, but she powered through until the moment Steve Rogers politely knocked on the door of the building.
The crew member on the other side was greeted by guns in the hands of professionals -not Ashley, at any rate- and there were no heroics to be found on the side of the civilians, who surrendered immediately and without much in the way of remorse. Once the noncombatants were herded away to safety, establishing a line of communication was a breeze. Furthermore, apparently so was giving stirring inspirational speeches, at least to Steve.
“…it's a price I'm willing to pay. And if I’m the only one, then so be it. But I’m willing to bet I’m not.” By the end of it, Ashley snapped her fingers in poetic applause, and Steve fully glowered at her, clearly having relaxed upon entering the warzone, a bizarre little twist. “Really?”
Sam looked over at his friend. “Did you write that down first or was it off the top of your head?”
Ashley grinned at him, feeding off the adrenaline of impending doom and the fact that teasing Steve was entertaining under any circumstance, just especially those of the dire persuasion. “Enthralling, truly, but I do have some notes of constructive criticism. Namely, the fact that we’re all sitting right here, ready to go.”
Steve made a face like a parent stooping down to his child’s level. “Then I guess we should probably do our jobs, huh.” It was almost snarky. Ashley had never felt more proud.
Gesturing toward the door, Ashley willed it open and strode out the door with all the concern of a deer crossing a highway. No gunfire immediately moved to disintegrate her, but it wouldn’t have surprised her. Steve and Sam seemed appalled by the risk but followed after her the moment she didn’t die on sight. The Captain caught up with her in half a second and said, “Hey, be careful, alright?”
She glanced sideways at him, lips stretched into a thin line of a smile, before sprinting ahead, banking hard to the right toward the carriers.
This of course was when the gunfire started.
The interrogation room was more of a depressing cube fitted with the cheapest table and chairs money refused to buy and a mirror so conveniently placed so that even the dumbest of crooks would know that there were people on the other side. Admittedly, Ashley figured this likely worked in favor for the majority of interrogators, who dealt with lowlifes already paranoid by default.
Unlucky for Ashley, Arthur was no such case. He was leaning back on the dull metal chair like an office worker on break, picking at the dirt under his fingers while waiting for someone to tell him what to do. Seeing him so completely at ease made Ashley’s entire body turn cold for all the time it took for her to tear her eyes away from the mirror and listen to what the Colonel was saying. “Whatever he wants with you, just keep him talking, alright? We need anything we can get out of him.”
Ashley glanced at Arthur again, and he stared directly at her through the glass, which shouldn’t have been possible if he was anyone but him. “You’re not going to get much.”
The Colonel just handed her a notepad and a pen -“for realism”- and motioned at the door by way of response.
Ashley rolled her eyes as she went for the door, the guard in front of it moving out of her way with the utmost haste, probably because her face was charged with anger the moment she realized that she really was about to step into that room. “Fantastic. Take your seats, guys, I’m it’ll be quite a show.”
The door swung open and Ashley marched inside with the precision of a trained soldier, which she most certainly was not, and took her seat across from Arthur, purposefully making the metal screech against the floor as she pulled it back, smirking at him all the while. “Long time no see, motherfucker.”
Arthur leaned back further in his chair, and Ashley had half a mind to kick him the rest of the way down. She restrained herself, figuring a verbal sparring match would be more satisfying anyways, tapping her pen against the notepad like an overeager shrink. “Really? I bargained my way to getting you here, and all you’ve got is some cliched villain-esque greeting?”
“I’m sorry to disappoint you. But then again, I suppose it was my turn.”
He frowned. “Look, I’m sorry I shot you.”
She spoke with distant incredulity, staring at the blank white page, even as her eyes popped in time with a vein in her temple. “That’s what you’re sorry for? Shooting me? Not trying to kidnap me and recruit me into your Nazi mad scientist cult, not throwing me at Johann Schmidt’s feet like a prized buck, trying to turn me into you, but for shooting me. I mean, thanks, I’m fine, but bigger issues.”
Arthur leaned forward in his chair, a salesman readying his pitch. “And yet you still saved my life.”
“Pure selfishness,” she said, jotting down scribbles with meticulous care. Obviously, she couldn’t let him register the tension that wound its way through her body like fishing wire, invisible but tight.
He nodded slowly. “Of course. It’s your brand.”
She couldn’t stop the anger from manifesting on her face, her jaw shifting under the weight of the words she refused to say. Instead, she swallowed them and picked new ones. “Right, I’m the selfish one.” Ashley scoffed, squeezing her eyes shut while she took in a breath. "At least I'm not trying to force you to be something you're not."
Arthur’s lips ticked upward into a thin smile, like checking a box on both sides of his face, small but precise. “No, you’re just screwing me over by denying reality.”
“Of course, I should have known,” she said, shaking her head at her morphed reflection in the table. “Now, which reality would that be, exactly? The one where I’m a pawn in your play for power or the one where you’re a bitch-ass Nazi knock off,” Ashley said, her fists balling so tightly that there wasn’t a drop of blood left in them. She stood from her seat to drive the bloodless hands into the table, letting the notepad lay sprawled out like a diary.
“How about the one where you have the power to stop an entire war, but you’re too scared to accept any kind of responsibility and too stubborn to admit that I might be in the right?” Arthur said, standing himself, leaning across the table like he was the one interrogating her.
“Responsibility? Are you kidding me?” She tapped her fist lightly against the table, a dull echo sliding across its surface. “I joined the war because I knew I could help. I hate it, the systematic bloodshed, how good I am at helping it along, but you convinced me it was the right thing to do. And when that wasn’t enough, I moved across the world, thinking I was supposed to save you. Funny how that worked out.”
“I saved you instead,” he said, face heavy with thought. His gaze shifted upward, eyes pleading with hers. “Look, Schmidt can help you. You’re already in this, More." She scowled at the name. "You just have to accept it.”
When she met his eyes, Ashley could see that he believed every word he said. Her anger retreated like a wounded army, still there but useless for the current moment, and Ashley forced her entire body to relax back to its usual posture, then sat down in her chair. “Tell me about Hydra,” she said, ever the professional.
“More, don’t be like this,” he said, but when he got no immediate response, he sat down in his own chair.
“Tell me about Johann Schmidt.” Her voice had lost any trace of malice, but more importantly traces of anything at all.
“He’s a brilliant scientist. Soon enough, he’ll be able to control the cube’s full power,” Arthur said, his voice warm with praise.
“That’s not possible,” Ashley said, then turned toward the dull thudding sound from the mirror. The Colonel wanted more information. Fine, Ashley thought, let’s see where this goes. “The cube, how can he control it?”
Arthur shook his head. “Come on, More, you know I can’t tell you that.”
“Then why the hell am I here? What was the point?” Ashley said, the anger stirring again, simmering in her chest.
“I wanted to see if your bullet wound was healing. Turns out there wasn’t much to worry about, I guess,” he said, smirk piercing his features. “Nothing seems to keep you down.”
She knew exactly what he meant but couldn't stop herself. "What the hell is that supposed to mean?"
"Why can't you just accept that you've been chosen for a greater purpose? The cube is your fate, Ashley. You can't escape it anymore than I can." He smiled as though he knew everything. "Even if you actually wanted to."
Despite her proclamations of hating her propensity for violence, Ashley didn’t bother stopping herself as she twirled the pen around with one hand, winding it between her features, just before she plunged it into Arthur’s prone hand with the speed of a scythe slicing through the air in a similar, deadly arc. Arthur screeched at the pain, lurching forward as he grabbed at it with his good hand, all while Ashley stood up, took the notepad from the table, noticed it was spotted with blood, and walked out the door.
The Colonel stared at her with a fury that only Ashley could find amusing in its dramatics. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
Ashley thrust the notepad toward him and let it fall into his surprised hands. “Leaving.”
She left the room with the same gusto she’d used when stabbing Arthur with a pen, only this time the only person witnessing the entire ordeal was herself. Ashley wilted with exhaustion the moment she stepped outside, realizing her dress was now creased and probably sprinkled with some degree of blood, and also realizing that it didn’t stop her from wanting to find Bucky. She began a dedicated but rather short search.
Unsurprisingly, he was still in the bar, still sipping at what could not possibly have been only his second drink. As she walked up to him again, his head swiveled toward her, obviously much heavier to its owner than it had been not an hour earlier. “Hey, soldier.”
“This again?” he said, his words not as slurred as she expected, but traces of booze slipped through his speech, gently coaxing his words closer together. “You’ve got to have something more original up your sleeve, doll.”
Ashley sighed, brushing dust off her dress as though that wouldn’t make it worse. “Not really up for creative banter at the moment.”
Her eyes wandered the room like they were looking for a better view of the universe, obviously finding themselves shit out of luck. Bucky turned away from his drink with only the slightest hint of sorrow. “What happened?”
She looked around the bar. No one paid them any mind, their conversation shielded by the tapping feet of dancing couples and the proud and horrid singing of the men around the piano and the chorus lining the booths. A private conversation here wasn’t impossible, but the flavor of those tended to be more on the light-heated side, and Ashley clearly didn’t have the penchant for that tonight.
Bucky stood up, slipping out a few notes from his pocket and setting them down on the bar beside his unfinished drink. “I need some air,” he said when she questioned him with the arching of her brow. The words made her grateful, and she laced her arm in his as they walked outside, a pair of lovebirds on a midnight stroll to anyone pretending to care. “Did you want to talk about it?”
They walked along a path neither of them paid attention to, following the dirt road in the loosest sense of the word. “I told you that I knew Arthur,” she began, watching him for signs that she should stop speaking, that it was too much. He just looked at her and nodded. “Part of the reason I came here was to find him. I hadn’t seen him face-to-face since, well, years.” Ashley sighed, memories weighing her down as they flitted through her mind like restless fireflies. “Before you found me, Arthur… Something happened to me.”
He froze, breath hitching, the missed step sending their mutual stroll into uneven disarray. Ashley grabbed his hand to steady him, fingers wrapping around his, cool against the rough surface of his palm. “Hey, I’m alright. It’s not what you think.” She gripped his hand tighter and tugged him along their forgotten path, then stopped, seeing an empty tent outfitted with tables and, more importantly, chairs. Her heels were slowly draining the feeling out of her feet. “I just don’t know how much I should tell you.”
Bucky shrugged with terribly faked disinterest. “I mean, probably everything.”
She smiled and urged him closer, their shoulders pressing against each other as she constructed her next sentence, moving to lean on the table and rip off her shoes with no shortage of malice. “My whole life, I’ve been trapped in this,” she paused, searching, “reality. Everything I do just gets me a little bit closer to it. This time, when I came here, I thought I'd gotten away. For a long time, that’s all I ever wanted.”
Ashley shook her head, letting the heels clatter onto the table beside her. On the other side, Bucky sat down next to her, looking up at her like a child listening to a storyteller. “Arthur took that chance away.” She met his eyes, smiled so slightly there was almost no chance he could see it in the dim lighting of the night. "As he does."
Her eyes closed of their own accord, and Ashley seemed lost in thoughts she didn’t need to be having. Bucky turned closer to her and said, slowly, “When I was at the factory, they made us to do same thing every day, assembly line shit.” He took a breath, gripped her hand just a little tighter. “Worked us to the brink of collapse, sometimes past it, and there was no way out that wasn’t worse.” He bit his cheek, remembering. “When they took me, I should have been more afraid. But I don’t even remember fighting it.”
By now, Ashley had moved to sit on the chair next to Bucky, positioned so she was leaning against its back, meeting his eyes while her feet sunk in the damp earth, grass bristling underneath. “I get it. It’s okay.”
“No, Ash, it’s not. That’s what I’m saying. You can’t…” He sucked in a breath, looking out over the base for inspiration. “You shouldn’t give in to any of this. Whatever it is.”
She reached out and put her hand on his cheek, brushing her thumb lightly across it. “I tried that, Bucky. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
He closed his eyes as she pushed back a stray piece of hair, tucking it behind his ear with precise care. “Try again.”
Hand retreating to her side, Bucky’s eyes opened to see her standing up, grabbing her heels off the table with no intention of returning them to her aching feet. “Okay,” she said, preoccupying herself with resetting her chair to be under the table. “I’ll do my best.” Bucky stood up and followed her suit, trying to catch her eye. She wouldn’t let him -her heart was beating too fast to let him get close again. “Come on, I’ll walk you back.”
“Ash,” Bucky said, hovering over, looking for an opening. She took a breath, shoulders lifting on the inhale with some effort, and started walking toward the center of the base. Bucky followed, a couple steps behind, magic bubble having burst the moment Ashley let it get too close, now they were two strangers, acquaintances at best, and she seemed to prefer it that way.
They were now in the epicenter of a light explosion, the distant bar sounds drifting across the mostly vacant space like a fond memory, while harsh yellowed bulbs glared throughout reality. Everyone was either partying or holed away, so only two people could admire the hideous distortion were distracted by other matters. “You should join the team,” Bucky said, the force of the line telling Ashley it was a last-ditch effort of the recruitment variety.
“What team?” she asked, aiming for politeness, but her eyes flickered with soft light.
He launched into a pitch for the Howling Commandos, Steve’s group that would take down Hydra single-handedly, get revenge on Johann Schmidt, change the tide of the war. As she listened, Ashley wondered if perhaps Bucky had missed his calling as an insurance salesman, then figured he was too valuable for that. She didn’t quite know what she meant by the statement, too focused on his pitch to really consider it, she just knew she believed it.
By the end of the pitch, which was less than a minute, he seemed out of breath, but he held it until Ashley responded. Well, she opened her mouth to respond, and he quickly added, “Ash, you’ve got to try at some point.”
Ashley could see on his face the moment he realized he might have crossed a line. She only smiled at him, shook her head and said, “God, you’re impossible.”
He grinned. “Does that mean I’ve convinced you?”
She rolled her eyes. “Whatever makes you happy, Bucky.”
Within a week, Ashley was suiting up with the Howling Commandos, checking to make sure her blades were all polished to perfection, ready to head out to the first doomed base once the Captain gave the signal. She didn’t want to fight, but Arthur and Schmidt had forced her hand.
Despite her best efforts, she could not convince the Colonel to let her see Arthur before she left, not even to gloat at him or anything of the sort. Though she recognized it as fair, considering the useless and unexpectedly violent last meeting, she still made the executive decision to press into Arthur’s mind before she left, giving him a mental middle finger before moving out to destroy the bastards he’d chosen over her.
Bullets twirled through the air like high-speed ballerinas, dancing past Ashley’s ears with a kind of laissez-faire attitude that seemed out of place with the rest of the world around them. Ashley sprinted toward the carrier, throwing up a barrier around herself, bullets sinking into her skin before bouncing off like rubber pellets, painful but not slowing down her stride.
Unsheathing a sword, courtesy of Fury's rather eclectic emergency arsenal, Ashley ran down a runway splattered with planes and people, most of them shooting at her. The ones who didn’t weren’t doing anything else, slumped on the ground at various angles that made the strikes Ashley maneuvered into –twisting past a Hydra agent and slicing a gushing river into their chest before diving and stabbing a hole into their comrade– that much more pointed in nature.
Pockets of Hydra agents concentrated their fire on Ashley, the onslaught of bullets sticking to her with such impressive numbers that she looked like Tony’s crude initial attempt at the Iron Man armor, her body heavy with effort required to push through each step. She felt like someone had put a blood pressure cuff around her whole body, slowly squeezing her in an attempt to find her weakness.
The pressure built around her, and Ashley’s knees buckled, smacking against the ground, causing bullets to burrow themselves underneath, still scalding hot from the explosions that propelled them. Blood pulsed against Ashley’s strained skin, thumping loudly amid the gunfire. Ashley could hear shouts from around her, the triumph in the sounds only possibly imagined.
Her head pulsed in time with the blood, and Ashley’s eyes were squeezed shut when the bullets encasing her dispersed like a massive frag grenade, blinding light burning against her eyelids. Shouting turned to screams, and Ashley still felt her blood pounding in her veins, but she opened her eyes and found the strength to stand. Looking down at her hands, Ashley saw that they were still twitching with faint, greenish light. She bent her fingers experimentally, but no more bursts of power erupted from her.
A burst of gunfire shifted Ashley’s hands in the direction of the last surviving Hydra agent in sight, sprawled out across the concrete and aiming a gun with slick fingers, missing by a mile. Ashley’s rogue hands exploded with that same violet-tinged power and sent the limp body of the agent across the airfield in a high arch, dead long before the corpse turned to charred bone.
“What the fuck?” Ashley said, hands shaking as she shaped them into fists, head pounding as more images blinked through her head, too fast to discern, but bile rose in Ashley’s throat anyways.
The gunfire didn’t stop for Ashley's momentary distraction, and the remaining assailants were machines, anti-aircraft and the like. Ashley dove past the first one too slowly, pain screeching up her leg as she took cover behind the metal base of one of its compatriots.
Grabbing at her wound, hissing when her fingers pressed too hard against the bloody mess, Ashley saw in the distance why the machines were able to focus on things on the ground. The aircrafts meant to distract them were out of commission. She bowed her head against the weight building in her skull. “Sam?” she said into the comm.
“Ashley, you okay?” Sam said, his voice loud over the background noises of pinging bullets and the fighting that accompanied.
She gritted her teeth. “I’m fine, but I’m gonna need a ride.”
“I thought you could fly,” he said, half-quipping, but Ashley was too distracted to keep conversation light. She looked at the smoking remains of the Shield aircraft arsenal, wondering who was among the rubble.
“Not without a plane,” Ashley said, voice low.
There was a lull as Sam maneuvered past whatever latest thing tried to kill him. “Look, I can’t get close enough to you with all those big guns trying to rip me to pieces.”
Ashley pressed her eyes shut and got to her feet with the help of the wall she was hiding behind. “Leave that to me.”
Raising her hands, Ashley tried to will the pressure in her head outward, hoping for another massive burst of painful light to sprint across the airfield. Whatever was happening to her, however, her powers chose not to cooperate, searing in her veins without any outward effect. The gunfire pressed on, and she could hear Sam complaining to her in the distance of the comm in her ear.
She cursed and waved her hands in violent frustration, and naturally this is what sent one of the guns hurtling toward its brethren like a clunky missile, colliding with its twin in a family reunion for the ages, flames erupting in a molten cloud of debris and gunpowder. "Figures," she muttered.
Ashley ran in the direction of the rubble, though run was a strong word for the exhausted half-jog she managed to invoke. Her body felt like it was being dragged down through the earth, each movement a fight against the shifting ground beneath her and the thick cascade of dirt and gravel in front of her.
Admittedly, this was all in her head, but Ashley still struggled to overcome the mental block as she pushed past flashing images of smudged people, their features obscured by time and whatever else was wrong with her, all while she ran in the direction of the edge of the platform. When she reached the end, her feet did not slow down in their momentum, instead pushing all of their energy outward, sending her toward the empty sky. “Sam!” she called after a moment of the air smacking against her.
“I’m on it,” Sam said, and after a moment, Ashley felt arms wrap around the undersides of her shoulders, pulling her upward despite her body essentially functioning as dead weight. He heard Sam straining to drag her against the gravity.
Gunfire popped all around them like ill-fated balloons. Ashley’s head drooped with the weight of the shield she tried to conjure around them. Sam said something in her ear, which Ashley didn’t catch amid the roaring sounds and spotting in her vision, but she said something snappy in reply to what she imagined was Sam’s comment, something along the lines of “Good luck” and “Don’t die.”
When Sam placed Ashley at the lip of the Helicarrier, he did so with a flourish, twisting away as soon as she had solid footing on the platform. Once Sam was out of sight, Ashley ran up the lip of the platform, aiming for the core processor of the ship, reaching in her pocket for the chip Maria had given her just a few hours prior.
Ashley felt his presence before she saw it, diving away from the gunshots that followed, rolling underneath the stream of bullets, body heavy as lead. She pulled out a sword and tried to send a wave of energy in the general vicinity of her attacker, but while her power still pulsed everywhere around her, right up to her fingertips, it refused to manifest itself in any productive way. “Fucking hell,” she cursed.
With the most helpful of her options made moot, Ashley scrambled for cover, vision still too questionable to be throwing a blade not specially made for such a feat. Her attacker waltzed forward with an excessive amount of antipathy, gun held at the ready with every step. “You know, you’d be prettier if you smiled,” Ashley crooned from behind a well-placed metal drum. She honestly had no idea what she was saying, but it felt vaguely clever.
In response to her vague cleverness, gunfire pierced the sound barrier directly above her head. “And I’d probably like you more if you weren’t trying to kill me.”
Her voice rose in frustration, and as a direct result of the unnecessary sounds taking place, Ashley groaned, grabbing at her head, temples throbbing with her pulse as she willed herself not to die at the hands of a former love she didn’t even have the dignity of remembering fully.
With that gruesome thought, another idea sparked in Ashley’s head. “Bucky, wait!” she said, throwing her hands up in surrender. No gunfire immediately followed, so Ashley took a gamble and stood up slowly, hands still raised, heart rioting in her chest. She stared at the Winter Soldier, the black leather figure cut into the backdrop of a death machine, blending in seamlessly, metal arm gleaming amid the wiring, hair crumbling in front of his face like blackened straw. He looked broken, and Ashley felt her heart lurch toward him. “Look at me. You know me. Please.”
The Winter Solider, hair still obscuring most of his face, gun still raised in offensive position, lifted his head slightly. Ashley couldn’t see the swirling blues of his eyes, but she imagined them, felt them searching hers for some recognition she could only partially provide. “Do you remember me?” she asked quietly, taking a step forward, closing a bit of the distance like she was surrounded by broken glass.
Bucky continued to stare straight at her, muscles locked in place by heavy training. Ashley inched closer, slower than she could afford, and when she stood two feet away from him, close enough to see the sweat beading on his forehead, the vein pulsing in his neck, she reached out a hand. “You have to remember me, Bucky. Please.” Her heart cracked under the weight of the moment, and she pressed her eyes closed just briefly. “I think I love you.”
For a moment, the span of a surprised blink of an eye, it seemed like Bucky was going to reach out, his hands twitching on the gun now lowered slightly away from a kill shot. Then the pop of gunfire echoed too close for comfort, and Bucky’s hands clicked back into position and fired the gun directly at her chest.
Ashley’s first mission with the Howling Commandos went as well as she expected it to, which, because she was a closet narcissist, was perfectly. “Perfect” was a relative term, of course, because everyone was cut and bruised and bleeding, but no one lost any limbs or lives, at least on their side, so Ashley struggled not to call it a massive success. Even better was that this tiny stronghold now made of ash did not also contain a certain glowing blue cube. Not that she truly expected it to, the weapons powered by it were enough for the other Commandos despite her own apprehension, but it did relieve a certain amount of anxiety for her to return without it.
As the Commandos marched back in victory, each one holding the stolen treasures of the Tesseract, they were greeted by admirers, one of which was Howard Stark, who smirked at Ashley as she sauntered up to him, face caked in dirt and blood and sweat. “You look awful,” he said, smile not fading in the slightest.
She shrugged. “I’ve looked worse.”
He laughed and put his arm around her shoulder, maneuvering around the newly acquired toy, pulling her close as he laughed and lead the way back to what Ashley assumed would be a bar. As they split off from the group undoubtedly moving in that direction, she realized Stark was coaxing her in the direction of the lab, and the thought made the stolen gun strapped her back feel much heavier than before, same for her eyes. “Eager to get to work?” she asked, voice weighed with an odd sense of dread.
“I have something to show you.”
Ashley shrugged his arm off her shoulder, trying for nonchalance. “It couldn’t wait until morning?”
They entered the lab despite Ashley’s apprehension, and Stark led her back to the glass containment area, where the bright blue energy core from one of their previously-commandeered weapons stood suspended in the air, resting quietly on a small metal base, undisturbed by the two new eyes on it. Ashley, meanwhile, felt her heart squeeze at the sight of it, her entire chest drawn into itself like a self-destructive magnet.
Stark took the gun from Ashley’s shoulder, and Ashley barely struggled against the movement, weight relieved from her as Stark fiddled with the machine gun like a child dissecting a new toy. “I had a thought while you were gone, and I wanted to wait until you got back to try it out,” he said, eyes still locked on his latest project. “I started wondering about what this power source Hydra is using. Obviously, it’s got quite a bit of juice, and so far none of our stuff seems to be able to combat it. We’re attacking the people with the guns, not the guns themselves, you know?”
“That’s generally how war works, Howard,” Ashley said, staring at the small speck of blue trapped behind the glass. She put in conscious effort to breathe evenly as Howard continued speaking, neither of them actually meeting each other’s eyes as they conversed.
“But then I started thinking,” he continued, ignoring her weak reprimand, “What if we could attack their weapons? Figure out some way to neutralize whatever mechanical advantage they have over us by taking it for ourselves.”
Ashley put a finger on the glass, positioning it just enough to cover up the speck from her line of sight. Howard let out a cheer as he freed the energy core from the new gun, taking the core out with metal tweezers and placing it on the table beside him. “I’m not sure this is a good idea,” Ashley said, her head filling itself with ache, a feeling that pressed unpleasantly against her temple.
“I took precautions,” he said dismissively. As he took the core over to the door to the containment room, he looked up at her finally, and Ashley recognized disappointment in his features. “Besides, I thought you’d want me to keep you in the loop.”
She stepped closer to him, removing her finger from the glass, finding it cooled to the point of burning. “Howard, I’m just tired. It’s been a long day.” The moment the last word came out, Ashley’s head flashed with pain, and she reached out desperately for a wall to steady her, instead finding Howard’s arms locking around hers, holding her upright. He said something to her, but Ashley didn’t bother listening.
Howard guided his friend over to the table, letting her rest against it as he told her, “I’ll go get you some water. Hold on.”
Ashley heard Howard’s retreating footsteps, moving toward the other side of the otherwise empty lab, leaving Ashley alone with her painful thoughts and two small relics of the Tesseract.
Without thinking, Ashley reached a hand out toward the two pieces and shut her eyes, willing them to be quiet. What that meant, Ashley wasn’t quite sure, but for a moment her head felt clear and empty, right up until the moment that everything around her burst with power, sending her flying backward, barreling into the desk behind her, shoulder slamming into the hard ground beneath it as a burst of cold diffused into the air.
“Ashley!” Howard yelled in the distance, floor bouncing as he ran to her. Ashley reminded herself to breathe, but it wasn’t strictly necessary. Despite the painful tumble, she felt fine. Better than before, at any rate.
Pushing herself to her feet, Ashley was met by Howard kneeling at her side, scanning her body for injuries as he pressed a hand against her face. “Oh my God, are you okay?”
She shrugged, now standing as she met Howard’s concerned gaze. “I think so.”
Howard surveyed the mess behind her, scattered bits of drywall and glass littered the floor in a five-yard radius. “What happened?”
Ashley tried not to appear too distressed. “I’m not entirely sure.”
“‘Not entirely sure’? Ash, part of my lab just exploded. What do you mean?” Howard asked, his brow deepening in a slow-building anger. Taking a deep breath, the anger dissolved just a bit, and Howard said slowly, “I’m gonna find something to clean this up. Don’t move until I get back.” Seeing Ashley’s slightly affronted look, he added, “Please.”
The earnestness of the plead was what made her stay. Howard walked away in the direction of a maintenance closet, presumably, leaving Ashley to contemplate what the hell she had just done.
Clearly, her powers had activated as a result of forced exposure to the damn cube. She'd suspected that for a while, though she hadn't had any desire to test her theory. Now that she had... Was she now prone to explosions when exposed to the power of the Tesseract, whether she tried to use it or not? The thought seemed rather pointless. There was a reason Schmidt had wanted her, and it wasn’t for an unreliable human grenade. Maybe he thought she'd join his side. She could feel it, this power, still pulsing underneath her skin. It felt cold. It felt good.
Pulled by some force she registered as only possibly her own, Ashley wandered toward the specks of power, kneeling down beside them and letting her hand hover above them. Power hummed beneath her, the air crisp in the space between. Before she realized what she was doing, Ashley’s hand pressed against the dual relics.
Without another thought, she braced herself for another explosion, but instead she felt her blood chill almost pleasantly, the throbbing in her head dissipating like smoke in the open air.
She blinked hard, reeled back from an impact that never came, but somehow Ashley still felt like she’d been punched, that she'd done something irreversible. While Ashley ruminated these possibilities, she missed the telltale sound of glass cracking under the pressure of footprints. “Ashley, what the hell have you done?”
As is to be expected, Ashley Stark was in quite a bit of pain. Not only was her mind cracking under the pressure of a power she didn’t understand, but her shoulder was blown out by a bullet that has burrowed its way into her skin and out again, and now her stomach screamed as the first bullet’s friends found a fleshier target. After a moment’s deliberation, Ashley determined that in fact her stomach was not the one screaming, which only registered once she realized her throat was becoming dry from the prolonged expulsion of air.
“Ashley, what’s happening?” she heard through the comm. It was Steve’s voice, and he sounded terrified, which Ashley felt was valid. She felt the same, and she hadn’t even heard the screaming.
Rather belatedly, Ashley realized she was on the ground, blood pooling around her and seeping into her clothes. “Stupid bullets,” she murmured absently.
“Ash, where are you? What’s going on?”
Her head still pounded like a belligerent neighbor, the door of her skull shaking under the rapping knuckles of whatever was wrong with her, aside from the being-shot part. This, accompanied by another bullet whizzing right by the head in question, pissed Ashley off. “I’m so fucking done right now.” Another bullet. “Bucky, Jesus, I’m already dying. Just stop shooting.”
By the end of her speech she was laughing, woozy as she rolled on her side, blood making her hands slip as she tried to push herself to her feet. She made it to her knees before she realized the reason Bucky stopped shooting wasn’t out of respect for her wished, but rather because he’d taken the time to walk closer to her to finish her off.
He hovered above her, gun clenched in his hand, knuckles white as ash, and lifted the barrel toward her head.
“Gotta love a tragic love story, eh?” Ashley said, wheezing with laughter, blood curling itself in the corner of her mouth. “Finish me off, then.” Bucky didn’t move, gun still outstretched and aimed, his muscles taut and locked in place. “I said: ‘shoot me!’” she screamed, looking up in the face of her killer, meeting his eyes and finding no malice in them but also nothing else besides. It was like he’d been frozen in time, body suspended in a neutral expression while the world became crueler around him.
Another image flashed in her head, and around her blue light swirled, mixing with the smoke and ash coasting through the air, her hands glowing with cool power. For a moment, she no longer felt the painful pressure of a storm gathering inside of her. Instead, she looked down to find Bucky, younger but just as battle-scarred, resting in her lap, smiling up at her weakly. In the vision, Ashley reached out and stroked his cheek, fingers stained with his blood.
When her mind returned to the present, she felt inexplicable rage tear into her features. Ashley stared into Bucky’s eyes, and she swore she saw him flinch. “I’m so over knowing nothing,” she said, her breaths ragged. “I love you but don’t remember when we met. I’m in constant pain because of a power I can’t control. I know nothing about who I am. I’m done. So if you’re gonna shoot me, just fucking do it already.”
Bucky blinked once as he raised the gun, but before he could fire a shot, Ashley hands went numb as they channeled her newfound power and sent energy exploding outward, sending Bucky flying away from her in a painful spiral.
“Typical,” she muttered as she hoisted herself to her feet, careful not to slip in her own blood, before stumbling toward the control panel. When she reached the ladder, she groaned internally, but quickly pulled herself together, wiping the blood from her hands and onto her legs before pulling herself up the ladder, body screeching in protest with every move.
She was halfway up the ladder when the gunshots rang across the Helicarrier again, and Ashley tried her best to throw a shield up around her, but her mind stung so badly that she didn’t even know whether it was working or not. In any case, she didn’t feel any more bullets even as they pinged against the metal all around her. That is, until she made it to the final rung of the ladder and one hit her in the small of her back.
Gritting her teeth, blocking out the pain, Ashley dragged herself up the last bit of the ladder, since the alternative was falling to what would be her slow and pitiful demise, and continued toward the control console. She heard more gunfire and put up her middle finger, thinking that dried blood made it look more poignant as the lights darkened all around her.
Ashley felt Bucky’s feet stomp into the floor, reverberating toward her like a ripple in a lake, just less serene. Preparing herself to be finished off, she decided she’d die on her own terms, which in this case meant resting her head comfortably against the cold metal floor before passing out entirely.
Howard waited relatively patiently for Ashley’s response to his question, one that hung in the air like heavy fog. Clearing her throat, Ashley tried to conjure an explanation, but her mouth opened and expelled nothing but empty air. “Ashley,” Howard said, his voice precariously balanced between reproachful and concerned on that one word.
“I had a theory,” she said finally. Ashley recognized that her attempt at explanation was unconvincing at best, and the corresponding disappointment reflected itself in Stark’s face.
Leaning against a desk, Howard waited for Ashley to stand up before speaking. “And as a result, my lab exploded.”
Ashley shrugged limply. “Stranger things have happened.”
Her friend did not laugh at this. At best, he didn’t frown. “Ashley, I need a little more from you than a weak attempt at wit.”
“I had a thought about the energy sources, and I tried to test them out, but obviously we both know how that turned out,” she said, putting on a face of wistful amusement.
Howard sighed. “I looked into your records.”
Ashley’s heart burrowed itself deep in her chest, taking up as little space as possible. She said nothing in response, didn’t even nod. Didn’t even ask ‘when.’
“Were you ever going to tell me they were fake?” Howard asked after a beat. He shook his head, smiling without mirth. “Is Ashley even your real name?”
“It’s real enough,” she said quietly.
Howard hung his head, the weight suddenly too much of a burden. “You lied about everything, Ashley. Your birth certificate was forged, your passport, every degree you’ve ever said you earned. Yet somehow you manage to have extensive knowledge in every field you’ve claimed to be an expert in, despite having had no documented, formal education, or any other documentation of your existence that doesn’t turn to ash the moment you hold a candle to it.”
There wasn’t much Ashley could think to say, and there was nothing that wouldn’t just make things worse. Howard stared at her, waiting for some sort of excuse. Ashley refused to bother.
Scoffing, tilting his head back as though downing a drink, Howard said, “You can’t keep me in the dark like this, Ash. We’re partners. And friends.”
Ashley looked up at him as she positioned herself on the desk beside him, nodding her head slowly to some silent song. “I shouldn't have lied to you,” she said finally. “I really wish I hadn't."
Howard met her eyes. “Ashley.”
She shrugged again, rolling the weight off her shoulders. Ashley studied her friend’s face, and she could almost read the questions in his eyes. “Ask me.”
The offer hung in the air for only a moment. “What are you?”
“That's far too existential for me to answer.”
“Ash, come on,” he said, and Ashley could hear how desperate he was, how much he wanted to understand. Still, it wasn’t a stretch to also have him think her crazy. She sighed.
“I’m a 25-year-old human girl. Technically. Or, maybe I should say, biologically,” Ashley said, wishing she had something to fidget with other than her fingers.
Howard processed the implications for a moment before trying to banish them, leaning forward as though the shortened distance would confirm that Ashley was real. “And?”
Ashley smiled at that. “And I think I might be a witch.”
“You’re insane,” Howard said, his eyes narrowed as they scanned her own for humor. He didn’t find enough to indicate that Ashley didn’t believe everything she said. For some reason, though, he didn’t quite disbelieve her.
“If you really thought that, we wouldn’t be here.” Howard said nothing, which confirmed Ashley’s suspicions, and so she continued. “I was raised to believe in myths and legends. All of them. Even the boring ones. Especially the boring ones.” Ashley smiled, but it felt flat. “My father taught my brother and I to believe that we were special. That we were going to change the world. He trained my brother to be a warrior. Ridiculous, obviously, but he was a boy told he'd one day be a god. Hard to resist that kind of fantasy. And I was told that it was my duty to keep him alive with the power of the universe, whatever the hell that meant. Eventually, I realized he meant it rather literally.” She wiggled her fingers where the Tesseract has been absorbed into her skin. Her friend seemed to have nothing to say. “Since I was useless until that power showed up, I spent my time reading books, learning things. And since my father had an extensive collection of firearms, I spent a good bit of time learning about those, too.”
Howard drew in a long breath. “This is crazy.”
She rolled her eyes. “Yes, it is, Howard, now keep up. That wasn't even the best part.” Howard chewed on his lip. “This isn't the first time,” Ashley said, as though revealing a secret to a small child.
“First time for what?” he asked haltingly.
"At least, that's what my father told us," Ashley continued, as though Howard's questioned had never been asked. "He said it was our fate to be reincarnated, to be reborn whenever the universe was in great need of us. Whatever. Personally, I always thought that bit was a load of shit. I think us coming back is either dumb luck or an outright lie. But my brother seems to believe every word of it. He told us we're supposed to die for the sake of some story that always ends in us dying before we actually get to live."
"And you don't buy it?" Howard said, voice low.
"My father was a drunken asshole who thought that my brother put the damn moon in the sky, literally, while he left me to rot. There was a time when I didn't believe anything he said. It's why I left, after he died." She paused, looking down at her hand. "But I guess there must be some truth to it all."
Howard stared hard at her, raising an eyebrow. “You exploded my lab. That has to count for something.”
She smiled. “Yeah, maybe it does. Sorry about that, by the way.” Ashley looked at her friend, feeling no small amount of fear when she asked, "Does this mean you believe me?"
He sighed. “Ash, I've seen a lot of weird things in my lifetime, but the idea of you being a witch reincarnated by the whim of the universe isn't an idea I can really get behind. As a man of science and all.”
“I don't really want to believe it, either,” Ashley said softly. "If it isn't true, then I don't have to die."
“Well, I certainly don't want you to die,” he said, a smile forming slowly on his lips. "Who else is going to clean up the mess you've made of my lab?”
Ashley smiled back at him, trying to let it seem unforced. “I think we both know that, dead or not, I won't be the one to do it.” Howard just rolled his eyes. "Does this mean you're not mad that I lied to you?"
"Oh, I'm still mad," Howard said, then shook his head. "But I can't fault you too much for being crazy." He sighed. "Still, you're a good worker and a decent friend. I won't give up on you just yet."
In the haze of unconsciousness, Ashley heard the piercing sounds of metal scraping metal, and she wrenched her eyes open to see the ceiling of the Helicarrier, which looked too undisturbed to match the sounds of fighting echoing around her. Rolling on her side, which might have caused unimaginable pain if Ashley had been any less numb, Ashley saw the colored flash of Steve’s shield rip through the air before it cracked against Bucky’s metal arm.
Ashley tried to get up, but the blood made the floor beneath her slick, and her attempt resulted in her head nearly smacking against the ground for a second time. Reaching into her pocket, she realized the chip was no longer there, but instead on the edge of the platform, teetering above what was probably the best view of the WWE fight playing out directly below.
Digging her elbows into the blood-infused floor, Ashley dragged her body in the direction of the chip as Steve ran toward Bucky, dodging the gun his old friend aimed at him before wrestling it out of his grasp and tossing it to the glass abyss below. She reached the edge and scooped up the chip, careful not to let it slip from her bloody fingers.
Vaguely, Ashley realized that even if she wasn’t so woozy, she doubted she’d be able to stand, since at the moment she couldn’t feel her legs.
Brushing the problem aside for another time, Ashley army crawled her way back to the control console, awkwardly spinning herself around on the platform while below her Steve managed to land a punch right in Bucky’s chest, sending him stumbling backward as he regained his balance. The feat gave Ashley the distraction necessary to continue her painfully slow return trip without fear of being shot, but it meant she had to tear her eyes away from the deadly scene and focus.
She made it to the console with the chip still intact in her hand, if a bit bloodstained. Not a second later, however, she heard Steve cry out in pain as Bucky evidently got some sort of upper hand on him. The thought made her numb all over, instead of just her lower half, but nevertheless Ashley squeezed her eyes shut for a moment before she refocused her attention on inserting the chip.
Pulling herself up to the console, Ashley reached out the chip to place it before hearing gunshots ring through the carrier, followed by a dull thud. “Steve!” Ashley cried, heart suddenly banging against her chest like a rioting prisoner. When she heard no immediate response, Ashley clenched her jaw as she replaced the chip, then slumped against the wall of the console like a corpse. “Steve,” she called weakly. No response. Putting her finger to her ear, she told Maria, “Charlie locked.”
“Okay, get out of there, Ashley.”
Pain ripped its way through her side as another one of Bucky’s bullets dug its way through her body. Ashley lurched forward in pain, trying to call up a shield but finding the endeavor just brought her that much closer to passing out for good.
Ashley turned her attention to her assailant. “I’m already dying. Can’t you let me die in peace?”
Bucky stared at her, gun raised but not firing.
“Do you remember when we first met?” she asked, her words slurred like smeared paint.
He didn’t respond, but the gun still didn’t fire.
“I didn’t, for a while. Steve won’t tell me anything, but I’m starting to figure it out.” She laughed, the shock creeping its way back into her brain as the adrenaline, the necessity, wore off. “I think I punched you.”
The gun might have lowered an inch, or Ashley’s head might have tilted. Either way, Ashley threw an arm limply in the direction of her latest wound, smiling ruefully as she dug her finger into her wound. “I should be healing by now. But you knew that, didn’t you? That’s why you had iron bullets.” She grinned at him as she yanked the latest bullet from its place, letting it clatter against the floor. “Don’t you know how hard those are to aim? Is that why I’m not dead?”
Now Ashley knew he’d lowered the gun, because it now rested in a holster at Bucky’s side. Reaching up to her shoulder, she pulled out the other trapped bullet before saying, “Or is it because you still love me?”
Another godforsaken image flashed in Ashley’s head, though it was more of a remembered feeling than anything she could see. She felt blood bubbling in her throat -her own blood, she was choking on it- and the rest of her body felt like it had been trapped in ice, burning from the cold.
Tears sprung to her eyes as she returned from her vision. Bucky stared at her, face unchanged but he stood closer to her than before, she was sure of it. “You know, I think I’m kind of sick of dying,” she said finally, her body no longer numb from pain but from power returning to her in an angry fury. It thrummed in her ears like a new pulse. “Once really seems like more than enough. Truly.”
Bucky pulled his gun from his holster just as Ashley catapulted herself over the platform, landing only a few feet from where a horribly injured Steve was sprawled across the floor like a staged crime scene. “Steve,” Ashley said, putting a hand on his cheek, using her other hand to check for a pulse. She felt the pulse thump against her finger just before Steve turned his head toward her cupped hand, his eyes rolling in his unconsciousness.
Bullets spit their way toward Ashley and Steve but missed by a mile as Ashley put up a shield around Steve, her powers dampened by the recently-removed iron in a way that let her control them, at least for a brief time. It was her only chance. She pulled Steve into her lap as she tried to coax him awake.
Her eyes flicked up to Bucky, who jumped down from the platform, landing gracefully only for Ashley to throw Steve’s shield in his direction, the unexpected hit sending him flying backwards. Ashley turned her attention back to her friend, pulling him closer to her as though it would make things seem less hopeless.
“Steve, please wake up.” His eyes rolled again, and Ashley clutched onto Steve tighter. “Please, Steve,” she said, pressing her forehead to his. “I can’t lose you, too.”
Finally, Steve’s eyes flickered open, and he looked up at Ashley, blood dribbling from the corner of his split lip. “Hey, Ash,” he said, attempting a smile. Blinking, Steve slowly remembered where they were. “You need to get out of here,” Steve said. He looked alert now, despite his injuries, but more importantly he looked scared.
Ashley didn’t let him go, made no effort to follow the Captain’s order. “I’m not leaving you.”
If Steve could have moved, Ashley knew he would have tried to wrench his way out of her grasp, tried to find a way to get her out of danger, but the serum didn’t work quite fast enough, and while he clearly tried his best, his face twisted in concentration, he was in no condition to stand, let alone fight. “It’s alright, Steve,” she said. “I’m gonna get you out of here.”
After Howard got over the info dump of mythical nonsense, he seemed rather accepting of Ashley’s unique belief system. In his own words, “Who am I to tell you not to believe in the impossible? It's been my life's work to make that real.”
The rationale wasn’t exactly sound, but Ashley knew better than to argue with Howard, especially when a few days following their revelation-filled talk he presented her with a new pair of broadswords, both made from metal lighter than air and accented with handles laced with gold.
They were beautiful, and Ashley told him so, and her friend just smiled faintly and told her to consider them an early birthday present. When the Colonel gave her his latest order, and she saw the lack of shock registering on Howard’s face, she nearly ran him through with his own gift.
“Why in the name of all that is good and holy would you consider this a good idea?” she said to the Colonel, who narrowed his droopy eyes at her like a judgmental basset hound.
“Because I said so,” was the natural response, one that Ashley replied to with a middle finger or two directed at his retreating back, much to Howard’s unfortunate amusement.
“Insufferable assholes, all of you,” she said, realizing how ridiculous she sounded despite the pain springing in her chest.
Naturally, Captain America came to the Commandos not an hour later with the latest mission. Despite herself, Ashley suited up with the rest of them, admittedly eager to test out her new swords, and at the very least appreciating the near-absent presence they had across her back as the Commandos began their ascent to the latest Hydra factory.
As the unit crept through the wooded base, Ashley found herself next to Bucky, who held his gun dutifully at the ready, and the sight made Ashley cringe, if only because she knew it was for her benefit, since it was readied for Arthur’s head.
After the Colonel had given her the news, Ashley stormed over to Bucky’s tent, demanding his immediate presence in the kindest of fashions. He pulled open the curtain graciously, smiling at her in greeting, but before Bucky could say anything, Ashley marched herself inside, arms flailing in rage as she recounted the incident. Her rant soldiered on right up until the moment that Bucky came up to her, standing a mere three feet away despite the danger of flying limbs, and nodded in understanding.
“I’m sorry,” he said, earnestly, which Ashley had hoped would incense her further. It didn’t. She sighed.
“I shouldn’t have come here," she said. "I’m sorry.”
“Ashley,” Bucky said, putting his hand on her arm, his touch light but warm. “I get it.”
“The Colonel said he could be ‘used for our purposes.’ He has no idea. None. The things he’s done,” she had said, trailing off. “He’s a Nazi, for fuck’s sake!”
As Bucky continued pointing his gun at Arthur’s head, Ashley started to reluctantly imagine a future where the unit was attacked by enemy soldiers, and because Bucky had his gun loyally trained on the back of Arthur’s skull, he could do nothing when a bullet went through his. Ashley’s heart pounded at the fantasy like she’d just woken from a nightmare, and beside her she felt Bucky tense. “Ash?”
“I’m fine,” she said, teeth grinding against each other like masochists.
Arthur turned his head back to her, their eyes meeting just long enough for her to realize that he’d seen inside her head. The smile on his face was small, but she felt red burn briefly across her vision anyways. Bucky followed this interaction without understanding it. “Don’t let him get to you,” he said in a low voice.
“It’s not me I’m worried about,” Ashley muttered. Her voice was too quiet amid the sound of crunching footsteps and rustling leaves, and Bucky asked her what she said. “I just don’t understand why anyone thinks he’s worth a damn,” she said, this time projecting her voice in the direction of Arthur, and she liked to imagine that he stiffened as the words sunk into his back.
Walking closer beside her, Bucky asked quietly, “Why?”
Ashley shrugged as though she didn’t care, her muscles tense despite the fluid movement. “Everyone wants to save him without ever knowing what they’re trying to save him from. It’s just a waste of time.”
“How do you know?” Bucky asked, weapon still pointed casually at Arthur, voice mimicking the aimed nonchalance of the gun, but it still rang false. The question was important to him, and Ashley bristled at the thought without really knowing why.
“Because it’s what I’ve done my entire life,” she snapped, spitting the words out like burnt coffee, leaving a bitter taste in her mouth. Bucky seemed to reel back from the sudden tone shift, and Ashley instantly felt guilt pool in her stomach like liquid lead. Still, something in her hardened, and she refused to apologize. Instead, Ashley just pointed her head forward and focused on their impending mission.
“If you two are done flirting,” Falsworth drawled, a few moments too late. “We’ve arrived.”
He was right. Though Ashley was looking in that direction, it wasn’t until Falsworth broke her out of her stupor that she took in the sight of the factory looming ahead of them. Thankful for the distraction, Ashley narrowed her attention to the incoming fighting ground.
“At least 100 men stationed at one time,” Arthur said. This was information he had already provided, but Ashley knew he was just trying to prove his usefulness. The question was whether this attempt was in good faith or just an attempt to piss her off. In any case, he was stowed away from the potential action and told to stay low. Ashley seethed at the pointlessness of his presence.
“Stay alert,” Steve said, crouching lower to the ground as though that would somehow stop the hypothetical bullets from ripping through him like tissue paper. The shield hovering in front of him, however, she admitted, might help.
When the first of the enemy soldiers moved to attack them, Bucky abandoned his post as Arthur’s prison guard and aimed his gun at the soldiers firing at Ashley’s head. She ducked beneath the gunfire and rolled forward into the action, unsheathing her new swords and plunging them into the chests of the nearest living soldiers, yanking out the blades in time with the bodies descending to the ground.
Before she could even process what she was doing, her body spun around of its own accord toward the entrance of the base. She propelled toward it with an odd sort of grace, one that meant she continued taking out soldiers with little effort as she made her way closer. Without even thinking about what she was doing, Ashley flipped and spun and nearly danced around Hydra agents as they came for her, and soon she was standing in front of the entrance without any outside interference.
The battle raged on behind her, and despite their smaller numbers, her side seemed to be at an advantage. Still, there was an uneasiness building up inside of her, and it wasn’t until she felt it crackle through the air like static that she realized it wasn’t her typical brand of anxiety. Behind her, enemy soldiers retreated, not because of the clear loss they were about to incur, but rather, Ashley realized with horror, because a timer was about to go off.
As the bomb exploded across the field, Ashley threw up her hands impulsively, not trying to shield herself from the energy, but rather to absorb it like she had in the lab. She was thrown backward with a violence that sent her head snapping back before she even slammed against the ground. When her body did collide with the hard dirt beneath her, she felt the scraping against her skin like claws.
Still, though her vision flashed in time with the impact, she did not fall unconscious. Instead, Ashley immediately rolled onto her stomach and pushed herself up, surveying the damage with a certain desperation as her skin pulsed with the shock of the aftermath. Around her, brick and mortar had buried themselves into the ground like pockmarks, and the center of the explosion smoldered with its own destruction. She saw what looked like a body only a dozen yards away from her, and upon seeing the navy blue motif, Ashley realized with a horror-filled start that it was Bucky.
Running toward him, Ashley skidded across the ground, her knees aching in protest as she came to a stop beside Bucky, who was coated in soot and blood. A cut angled above his eyebrow sent blood sliding down the side of his face, and coupled with his limp form, Ashley thought she was looking at a corpse.
Pulling his body into her arms, she pressed her fingers against his neck, looking for signs of life. Before she could focus enough to distinguish his possible heartbeat from the wild beating of her own, Ashley saw the forms of Hydra agents closing in on the dispersed Commandos. Their guns, she realized, were aimed at her. In her arms, she felt Bucky stir, and she held him tighter to her, feeling her body pulse with the same energy he’d been taken out by moments before.
Running her fingers down the side of Bucky’s face, fingers coming away slick with blood, Ashley felt her jaw clench as she turned her attention toward the approaching soldiers.
Balling her hands into fists, she closed her eyes and pictured the power that had caused this, the swirling blue explosion cool against the air, and willed it to propel outward just as the Hydra agents began to fire.
The effect was devastating. One moment, soldiers steadily closed the distance between the dazed and injured Commandos, ready to take them as prisoners or worse, and the next they were screaming as they whipped through the air like trash in a hurricane, spinning violently before slamming into trees and dirt with scattered crunching.
“Ashley?” Bucky murmured, his voice hoarse. She looked down to see him staring up at her, his eyes glazed with what she guessed was some combination of pain from his injuries and concern over whatever he’d thought he’d seen.
“You’re okay,” Ashley said, smiling weakly. Her hand returned to rest on his bloody cheek.
Before he could inevitably ask what happened, Ashley noticed Steve searching the battleground for, Ashley assumed, survivors. Around her, the rest of the Howling Commandos seemed to be in various states of awakening -Arthur, too, not that she cared- and none of them seemed particularly injured despite the proximity to a powerful explosion. Steve locked eyes with Ashley after a few moments of searching, and when his eyes flickered down toward Bucky, she was confused as to why his expression hardened.
“Ash, your hands,” Bucky said, his eyes studying the fingers still resting on his face. She removed them when she noticed the blue glow emanating from her hand like an ethereal flare, and Ashley sucked in a breath at the sight.
“Oh god,” she said, dread winding its way up her spine like ivy.
Ashley’s first instinct was to run from Bucky and the others in case she did the same thing she’d done to the Hydra soldiers, though she briefly recognized that she wasn’t entirely sure what exactly that was. Before she could follow this instinct, however, she felt warm fingers tangle themselves in her own, and when she looked down, she saw Bucky smiling at her. “So are you some kind of witch?”
He was dazed from the explosion, Ashley realized, but she smiled anyways. Helping him sit up beside her, she squeezed his hand and said, “Something like that.”
“I’ll be alright, Ash,” Steve said, trying to be convincing. Ashley looked up to see that Bucky had recovered from the shield’s assault and was coming toward them with renewed malice.
Ashley reached her finger up to her comm and said, “Fire now.”
“Ashley, don't,” Steve said, but nevertheless the carrier lurched under the reprogrammed assault from its fellow machines.
The moment the Helicarriers began firing on each other, the entire structure shook violently and lurched to one side like a ship about to capsize, and Ashley thought not without some bitterness that since they were hovering over a massive lake, it would probably be a similar sort of death.
But even as she considered the circumstances of her impending doom, she felt none of the telltale signs of the injuries she was sure she’d succumb to before ever actually hitting the water. Sure, her body was still coated in blood, but it no longer seemed relevant. Her body felt no pain, and no numbness enveloped her like a freezing rain. Instead, she could feel power building underneath her skin again, but this time she felt it thrumming in her core, pressing inside her like a cold knife.
She had been thrown out of sight of her friend, instead landing on the fallen frame of the ship, sprawled out precariously for anyone not used to dangerous tests of balance. Ashley pushed herself to her feet, trying to take in her surroundings before she noticed Bucky several yards away, pinned down by the same fallen frame she’d landed on herself.
Without a thought, she ran to help him, kneeling down beside him wordlessly as she shoved her hands underneath the massive metal chunk and pulled. Nothing happened, naturally, and Ashley felt sweat bead on her neck and forehead despite the coolness winding its way through her body as power rolled inside her like a tidal wave, crashing against her insides as she tried to contain it.
Using the excess of power, Ashley tried to concentrate on lifting the frame with her mind, but the thought just made her vision go white. Bucky watched her with wild eyes as she struggled to help him. “I’m sorry,” Ashley said to him, bowing her head in defeat.
Bucky took in heavy, ragged breaths but didn’t say a word.
Ashley felt eyes boring into her back, and when she turned, she saw her friend, seriously injured and near the point of collapse, hurrying over to her side to help out their mutual friend. He met her eyes, and Ashley couldn’t make out everything that was lurking beneath them. At this point, she didn’t even want to bother trying. “You need to go,” he said, not unkindly.
“Steve, what’s happening to me?” Ashley asked, no longer pleading but matter-of-fact. Her friend grimaced at her, and Ashley wondered how much of it was from the question and how much was just from his pain alone.
“I really tried, Ash. To let you live your life,” Steve said, then started coughing violently, blood spilling from his mouth like a cheap horror gag.
Ashley realized what he meant on her own just before an image of her past slammed into the forefront of her mind, chilling the rest of her body as her power slowly began to take on a shape. “You knew what I was,” she said, her voice soft as she sifted through a distant memory. Looking down at Bucky, she felt tears well.
“Before you died, I-“ he was cut off by more coughing, and rather than forcing him to finish, Ashley shook her head. By now, she knew when her power was going to grow to be too much, and if she stayed here, Ashley knew she’d take out more than just an already demolished Helicarrier.
Steve made it over to Bucky and was kneeling by his friend’s side, ready to lift the frame so Bucky could escape. Ashley met her former lover’s eyes and thought that perhaps the wildness had faded slightly. He looked more grounded, almost placid, as Ashley stood to leave, already slow against the rebellion of her own body. Everything started to take on a bluish tinge, and the world became colder with every second.
“You’re gonna be okay,” Ashley said to Bucky. As she spoke, the ship rumbled under the weight of its kin’s assault. Meeting Steve’s eyes, she watched him nod at her once before she clenched her fingers at her side and started to walk away, only to be hit by another wave of power that sent her to her knees.
“Ashley,” Steve said, voice desperate.
She didn’t look at him as she pushed herself to her feet. “It’s so hard to be your friend, you know?” Ashley said suddenly, feeling her mind melt against the pulsing blue light in her head. “Captain America, the man who does no wrong. How do people stand it?”
Though she refused to look back at him, she could imagine the hurt that spread across her friend's face like a plague. Making her way over to an opening in the glass, Ashley felt the power surge in protest as it realized what she was about to attempt. Closing her eyes and wishing for her guess to be right, Ashley took a breath before plunging into the water below.
Upon arriving back from base with some decent injuries and a weird story that was eventually blamed on bad intel, Arthur was thrown back into his cell. Colonel Phillips called the experiment a failure, whereas Ashley, upon hearing it referred to as an experiment, started yelling at him for risking the lives of her friends over some stupid suicide project he’d concocted -in Ashley’s words- in his “pin-sized sack of a head.” Why she had not yet been fired was beyond anyone who didn’t know that it was Stark who paid her bills, not the government.
Nevertheless, the outburst did cost her certain rights, the most notable being the ability to walk into Arthur’s cell without a damn good reason (meaning the Colonel’s express permission and probable supervision).
When she asked for said permission not 24 hours after the incident, the Colonel blinked a few times at her, probably trying to discern whether or not she was crazy enough to ask this in the real world or if it was just a bad trip of a dream. He seemed relatively unsurprised when Ashley didn’t disappear into the void of dreamscape, and after Ashley bothered him for longer than he could stand, the Colonel granted her written permission just to get her to go away.
The guards inspected the paper thoroughly, excruciatingly even, before they finally let Ashley slip inside. Even still, they hovered only a few yards away from her, ready to restrain her the moment she became violent. Arthur sat miserably on the edge of the army cot, playing with his fingers and examining his hands, one of which had a puckering scar that looked like, to Ashley, a burn mark.
Looking up at her, a small smile leeched its way on Arthur’s face. “You come to stab the other hand? Make them match?” He held up his hands to show her, mocking. “You know, for posterity?”
“Tell me about the cube,” she said, ignoring the jibes. Arthur leaned back in his seat, considering her through narrowed eyes, as though he didn’t know exactly what she meant. “What did you do to me?” she asked, and Johann Schmidt and the Tesseract blazed in her mind. Ashley blinked away the faulty memory.
“I didn’t do anything,” Arthur murmured, glancing up at the guards like a scared child.
Clenching her jaw, Ashley grimaced. “The cube. When I touched it, something changed.”
“We both knew it was a possibility,” Arthur said, and Ashley realized he wasn’t including her.
“What exactly was Johann Schmidt’s brilliant plan?” Ashley asked, and at this she saw the guards perk up, perhaps starting to “understand” why the Colonel had signed off on this endeavor.
Arthur eyed the guards warily. Sighing, Ashley shrugged and tried her best to ignore them. In a moment, they were going to think her clinically insane, anyways. “I mean, we’ve always been able to do magic, you know, in our heads. But I absorbed an explosion. What happened?”
“Remember what Father taught us,” Arthur said meaningfully, and Ashley was forcibly reminded of her father's doctrine that such great power was destined to be at their disposal, Arthur's in the form of a mythical sword apparently lost to the ages and Ashley's in the form of magic fueled by relics from the birth of the universe. They were meant to change the world, at the small cost of their eternal souls.
“So it's really happening...” she trailed, and Arthur nodded in that pseudo-sage way of his. "It's real?"
The question hung in the air. After a long pause, Arthur seemed ready to try and answer it.
“You're the only one who ever doubted it, Ash.”
“But why can't we fight back, make our own choices. This can't be the only way that it ends.” The thought of changing everything, stopping this miserable nonsense, was almost invigorating. Ashley held her breath as Arthur seemed to deflate at the question. Her heart began to sink with him.
“Why would I want to do that?” he asked.
“Don’t tell me you actually want this. All we do is live to die. What’s the point in that?” Ashley said, speaking as though they hadn’t had this argument a million times.
Arthur shrugged. “I believe in the world we're creating. Sure, we have to die, but the world is better for it. You know that.”
Ashley looked around the prison cell, considered the guards just outside their room, the war just outside their camp. “Do I?” In her own mind, she pondered, And what exactly are we creating?
There was no immediate answer to either question. Instead, Arthur leaned back further on his cot, the weight of the question seeming to sink into his skin, carving frown lines into the soft clay of his face. “I’m sorry, Ash.” After a pause, he said, “But we both know this ends one way. You’ll lose it all anyways.”
This was not the answer she wanted, and Ashley felt her chest shake as she fought back the wave of emotion the statement had produced. Arthur tried to keep talking, but she felt the conversation end as soon as his tone shifted into something vaguely reminiscent of a motivational speaker. Standing up, Ashley left the room and marched past the incredibly confused guards. She hurried out the door, not expecting to be stopped by Steve but taking the obstacle in stride as he opened his mouth to greet her.
“Hi, Steve,” she said, cutting him off by accident.
He managed a poor attempt at a smile. “Hey. Can we talk?”
They moved into some corner that was vaguely private if you ignored the daylight blazing down on them. Steve stared at her, gearing up for whatever it was he needed to say. Ashley felt like she had a pretty good idea already. “I’ve been meaning to ask you,” he started slowly. “What happened out there?”
Ashley felt her mouth clamp shut. It had been only a couple days, yet somehow she was hoping everyone hadn't noticed her particular role in the aftermath of the explosion, or at the very least forgotten it. Clearly, Steve had not. He'd been trying to talk to her ever since, but she'd managed to get past his previous attempts. This one had caught her off-guard. She blamed her brother.
“The rest of the men think the blast took out Hydra. They think it was faulty wiring, too strong a blast, that Hydra was just sloppy,” Steve said, searching for some kind of confession behind Ashley’s eyes. She gave him nothing.
“Ashley, please.” He was asking her to trust him. Considering the trust he was putting in her that kept him from ratting her out immediately, Ashley felt slightly inclined to give back. Slightly.
“There was that mission,” she began, “when I was briefly captured by that godforsaken asshole Schmidt.”
Steve nodded, not unsympathetic. “I remember.”
“Well before my daring escape, he took out the power source of all of his weapons. And for reasons beyond all human understanding, when I touched it… something happened. It’s connected to me.”
His eyes went wide. though he kept the rest of his face reserved of obvious judgement. “The explosion?”
Ashley shook her head. “Not me. No. I promise. But, you saw.” She pictured the wave of power that sent those Hydra agents to their unfortunate and collective demise.
“I saw.” Silence hung in the air. “Can you control it?” When Ashley didn’t respond after a bit, Steve looked past her and said, “Ash, someone might get hurt.”
He wasn’t talking about the Commandos, and they both knew it. Even if Bucky hadn’t materialized in the distance, if Steve hadn’t let his eyes drift over to his friend, or if Bucky hadn’t spotted them both and walked over, smiling slightly in that casual way of is, they both would have known. Ashley turned her attention back to Steve for a moment. “I would never hurt him. That’s the whole problem.”
Steve softened at her words, and his small smile seemed genuine as he looked between her and Bucky, greeting his friend before bidding them both goodbye. Still, as he walked away, Steve gave Ashley a final look, one that she couldn’t quite discern the meaning of, but it still compelled her to take Bucky’s hand in hers.
He was no longer covered in blood, and aside from the stitches hovering just above his brow, there were no outward signs that Bucky had been injured in her arms only days before. His hand laced with hers immediately, though Bucky looked nothing less than confused by the sudden display. “Ash?”
She took a breath. “Do you remember what you said to me the other day?”
Bucky smiled slightly, still trying to shake the serious mood of the conversation. “I see you every day, can you be more specific?”
Ashley took a breath. “Come on. There’s something I need to show you.”
Ashley heard chaos in the comm channel cut to static, and as she freefell through the air, she felt the cold overtake her body before she even hit the water. For a brief moment she remembered one day when she was a kid, playing out in the snow during one of Tony’s business trip to Massachusetts, and Happy was supposed to be watching her while her dad was probably talking to some big wigs at MIT. In less than a moment, she managed to escape from his eye and sculpt an entire fortress out of ice and snow.
In reality, it was more of a cave than a fortress, because its construction was essentially Ashley digging her hands into the numbing snow and scraping out a home for herself until she was satisfied. The end result was a glistening cavern of snow, and to the child Ashley was, she thought it was beautiful. More than that, though, she thought it was invincible.
This line of thought ended the moment the mountain collapsed on top of her. The thick ice scraped against her skin, and the snow on top weighed it down, cutting off her lungs and turning her entire body, despite the abundant layers that Happy insisted on her wearing, numb in seconds.
The worst part of the collapse, however, wasn’t the cold. That part felt almost comforting. It was better than being burned, at least, Ashley thought. No, the worst part of the collapse was the light being sucked from her view, turning the entire world black despite the presence of bright white snow. Ashley tried to scream, but the darkness persisted, and as she struggled to breathe and colors began to dot her vision, she thought that at least it wasn’t completely dark, but the silence left her trapped in the void.
A brief eternity later, she felt a hand grab hold of her back, and suddenly the world burst into view as Happy saved her from oblivion. Still, though her sight and hearing had returned, though she escaped from the temporary void, Ashley couldn’t forget the cold. It had seeped into her skin, invaded her entire being, and yet she had welcomed it. The thought made her sick. Literally, it turned out, and though Happy was relieved that his boss’s ward hadn’t died on his watch, he was rather pissed that she ruined his pair of shoes in the process.
Falling from the Helicarrier called Ashley back to her childhood, because while she could see the water urging her closer and hear the wind sprinting past her ears, the cold seeping into her was the same feeling –all-encompassing and final. Ashley didn’t scream. Instead, she felt a sense of calm fall over her, even as her chest began to cave in on itself. The pain stretched out from her chest to the rest of her body in a matter of moments, but it felt like it was creeping its way through her body, stretching out like a waking child.
This slow pace was nothing but an illusion, one Ashley was absentmindedly aware of, her mind drifting with the pain. The fall from the Helicarrier was seconds at most, and before she even hit the water, the pain had overtaken her, and bright blue suddenly exploded across the air like a supernova. Her powers felt like a sonic boom, shaking Ashley to her core at the same time it blinded and paralyzed her in a way she only vaguely noticed.
Images flew through her head like wildfire, flickering past at devastating speed. Ashley focused on trying to discern what they were, all of these memories that had somehow been locked away from her all this time. But they were too fast, and Ashley couldn’t move to reach out for them, couldn’t move at all, because her power had demolished the sky as it left her, and she continued to fall through its aftermath.
Once she hit the water, it was different. She no longer felt helpless or invincible, and though she now had control over her body, she also felt the pain return, the bullets apparently not healed but rather briefly ignored. Now Ashley felt physically weak, past the point of movement.
The water was cold in its own right, however, and dark, since the sun was blocked out by the smoke. Debris dove into the water around her, and Ashley briefly imagined herself being skewered by the remnants of the helicarriers just after escaping them.
Though morbid, the thought got her moving, ignoring the claws dragging themselves across her nerve endings, her head throbbing with the mass of warning signals to her brain, telling her to stop or she’ll hurt herself.
Still under the water and fully capable of drowning, Ashley had to stop herself from laughing as she began to push her way into a swim, aiming for the direction of a shore.
When her head broke the water, some of the pain in her chest subsided as she sucked in breath, coughing and sputtering before finding that getting away from falling Helicarrier was critical and incredibly time-sensitive. Ashley reigned in her coughing, tears springing to her eyes at the effort, as she swam one stroke at a time in the direction of land. When ground appeared underneath her, Ashley almost collapsed in relief. Instead, she managed to drag herself the last few feet so her whole body was on land.
Allowing herself to cough now, Ashley curled up violently, spasming at the pain of pushing out the water in her lungs and the tiredness in her bones. In the comms, she could hear static and a few words of what might have been Maria. She probably wanted to know what was going on, and Ashley thought, with a hoarse laugh, that she would, too.
“You look rough,” said a soft voice. Ashley turned her head slowly in the direction of the sound and saw Arthur materialize a few meters in front of her.
Images flashed in her head, and though she didn’t know what they were, she knew what they mean. “I forgot about us,” she rasped out. “It was nice.”
Arthur frowned, knelt down at her side. He reached his hand out to push away a stray hair or the like, but he stopped abruptly, let his hand fall to his side. “I know you never wanted this. I’m sorry, More.”
Ashley lifted her arm and half threw it in the direction of her brother, and though her aim was good and her hand fell over his, she watched as it fell through imaginary skin, causing the illusion to flicker against the impact. She smiled weakly. “Ah, I should have known.”
“Arthur is my brother,” Ashley said, without the slightest bit of exposition, lead-in, or any other form of easing into a conversation she really didn’t want to have. Bucky, who at first walked in time with her, close by her side as Ashley led them into some uninhabited part of the surrounding woods, faltered, falling behind her as he processed this new information.
“Your brother?” he asked, trying to recover.
They came out into a clearing, and Ashley shifted to be in front of Bucky, looking him in the eye, nodding. “I probably should have mentioned that earlier.”
Bucky stared around at the trees surrounding them. “Why didn’t you?”
“He’s a Nazi,” Ashley said with a shrug. “Not exactly proud of my family tree.” When Bucky met her eyes again, she said, “I didn’t know. I haven’t seen him in years.”
Nodding absently, Bucky asked, “So you’re German?”
She raised an eyebrow. “If I was, would it matter?”
“No,” he said, and Ashley could tell he meant it.
“My parents are from England, but after my mom died, we moved to America. After my father died...well, we grew apart. I didn’t even know where he was until he tried to kill me,” Ashley said, resting her back against the tree after her monologue, falling silent.
Bucky watched her, keeping his distance. He looked around at the trees again. “So is that why you brought me out here? To tell me about your family history?” he asked gently. Then he smiled at her. “Or are you going to murder me?”
A smile spread across her face. “No. Too cliché.” The smile faded. Ashley braced herself. “I don’t want to lose you, Bucky.”
If he wanted to comment on how cliché that line was, Bucky hid it well. Instead, he stepped closer to her, his features tightening as he considered her words. “Ash, I’m fine. I’m not going anywhere.”
Ashley took his hand in hers, rubbing her thumb across the soft inside of his palm. His hand was warm against the cool surface of her skin, and she squeezed it closer to her own, siphoning some of his warmth for herself. Bucky smiled down at their entwined hands, just a little. Ashley took a breath. “Bucky, I’m going to die.”
His eyes went wide, and Ashley could have sworn his hand turned cold in hers. “What?”
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have told you. Better yet, I shouldn’t have let you in. But for a long time, I tried to pretend I didn't believe what was happening-“
“Ashley,” Bucky said, pleading. Looking up at him, Ashley knew she wasn’t explaining this well at all. His face was creased with hurt. “Are you sick?”
She shook her head. “No. No, just listen. My brother and I, it's complicated. He dies, and I die after.”
“But he’s not dead,” Bucky said slowly.
“He will be soon enough. It's a matter of fate.”
Bucky balked at this.
“I know this sounds crazy,” Ashley said, looking down at their still-entwined hands. “But do you remember what happened after the explosion at the Hydra base?”
“Vaguely. I mean, I got knocked out, then I woke up to you.” Bucky considered this for a moment, then looked at her, seeming hesitant as he added, “I asked if you were a witch.”
Ashley smiled faintly. “You did.” She paused. “And I think the answer is yes.”
For a moment, Bucky wondered if she was kidding. Ashley watched the surprised flash across his face, only to be replaced by warring sides of skepticism and concern. “Ash-“
“Look, I get that it doesn’t seem possible-“
“My best friend is a superhero-“
“But I grew up knowing that there was this thing-“
“His archnemesis has a literal red skull-“
“I think I'm Morgan Le Fae-“
“He has a- what?”
Ashley smiled wide, just for a moment. “I appreciate you trying to be cute.”
Bucky stared at her. “You're who?”
The mood slipped away like sand through their fingers. “It’s like… I’m still ‘me,’ you know? But I was born into this destiny, one that my father taught me meant that I was destined to live different lives, all in different times, places, whatever, but one where I am meant to save the world by sacrificing myself for it. My brother, too. And I don't remember any of them, and I'm not even sure if they're real, but if they are, then while I might be me, I am also the reincarnation of Morgan Le Fae, and my brother, god help us, is fucking King Arthur.” She paused, searching Bucky's eyes for whatever he was feeling. “Are you following me, soldier?”
“Ashley, this can’t be real,” Bucky said softly, like he was speaking to a child.
She tugged on his arm and urged him closer to her. “Don’t do that. Don’t pretend that this is impossible. You were just telling me it isn’t crazy. That Steve and his superhuman-ness should be crazy, too.”
“Yeah, but that’s science,” Bucky said, not letting go of her hand. “You’re talking about magic.”
“Then why haven’t you left yet?” Ashley asked, raising her eyebrow, eyes flickering with challenge.
He gave her a half smile, coaxed into generosity. “Ash. I don’t want to believe you.”
“But you do,” she said, but there was a question subtly laced underneath. "You saw what I did. The explosion. You know."
Staring at her, Bucky wrapped his free arm around Ashley’s waist, and she slid closer to him, bringing her own hand up to his face, running her fingers down the length of his wound, feeling the ridges the stitches cut into his skin. Bucky closed his eyes at her touch and murmured her name, barely audible under the weight of the living woods surrounding them. She pressed a kiss against the edge of his lips, and Bucky leaned toward her, eyes still pressed shut. “Am I really going to lose you?”
Ashley sucked in a breath, then brought her hand to rest on the back of Bucky’s neck before pulling his head down toward hers so she could rest her forehead against his. “Can I show you something?”
He nodded against her, and Ashley pressed another kiss to him, this time on his forehead, right between his eyes, as she unlaced her hand from his and brought it between them so they were both looking down at her open palm. She had no idea if she could call up her power at will, if it was even really her power to have, but she wanted to try. She wanted him to understand.
Closing her eyes, Ashley imagined her hand flickering with the cold blue light that had haunted her ever since she saw it, willing it to be reality. At first, she thought it didn’t work, but then she felt Bucky's breath hitch, his body tense. She opened her eyes and saw him staring at her hand, as transfixed as a moth to flame as her hand shimmered with the blue light that caused her so much trouble before. It made her smile, just to see herself controlling it. Ashley dared to even let it give her hope.
“You really are a witch,” Bucky said, breaking out into a confused, almost rueful smile.
Ashley laughed, pulling him close against her, dropping her concentration and watching as the blue light faded back inside her hand, leaving her cold and energized. “It’s really weird.”
Into her shoulder, Bucky laughed and said, “Really fucking weird.” He pulled back and began brushing her hair back behind her ear. “Are you really Morgan Le Fae?”
“She’s more of an idea than a person, I think. But, in theory, I'm supposed to be her.”
Bucky nodded, not really understanding, but trying to. “And your brother? His name is Arthur.”
“His name is Thomas,” Ashley said, almost harshly, before looking up at Bucky with a sigh, reaching for his hands again. “His real name is Thomas. But he hasn’t gone by that name since our dad died.” She shook her head at some vague and distant memories. “We have very different philosophies on the whole ‘Arthurian mantle’ thing.”
“What do you mean?”
Ashley shrugged. “He thinks it’s a privilege. I think it’s a prison.”
Bucky tilted his head at her, causing one of his eyes to shine under the light of the darkening sky. “Because you have to die.”
“Because we die for nothing. The legends say -my father said- we were supposed to be this life-changing force. That we could make the world better just by living in it. But we're in a middle of a massive war, watching -helping- people kill each other, committing terrible crimes. I design guns so people can kill each other better with them. I've killed people with those guns. And Arthur is a Nazi, for God's sake. Tell me how the hell either one of us is making the world a better place.”
“Ash…” Bucky said, squeezing her hands gently. He leaned into her again, but Ashley pulled away, suddenly panicking.
“No, Bucky, you don’t understand. God, the idea is ridiculous. I want so hard for this to all be some bad dream, some awful childhood trauma that I endured where my father was a madman filling my head with lies. When I left, I tried to believe that. I tried to live an actual life. But I can't just ignore the way Arthur and I can see each other even if we're hundreds of miles apart. Or the light show I can make with my hands. And I can't change the fact that when I touched the Tesseract, for a second I felt that I had finally been made complete."
Though she hoped Bucky would stop her, tell her it was alright, that she didn’t need to go on, she could see in his eyes how curious he was. She couldn’t begrudge him that.
“I think Morgan Le Fae might be more than just a person. And that if I'm not careful, I might lose myself to her power.”
"What do you mean?" Bucky asked, his curiosity still overwhelming his concern.
Ashley shrugged. “I might be a person, but Morgan Le Fae is an idea. And ideas tend to be more powerful than the people who hold them.”
Bucky stared at her. “You sound like Shakespeare.”
She rolled her eyes but smiled anyways. They were her father's words, but Bucky didn't need to know that. “Yeah, if Shakespeare was a melodramatic teenager with a magic kink.”
He laughed despite himself, letting Ashley fall against him, letting her steal some of the warmth from his skin as she laced her arms around his chest, pulling him tight against her like she was at risk of falling otherwise. “God, Ash, you’re lucky I love you.”
They both noticed the immediate stiffening of Ashley’s body as she took the words in, the way her arms loosened from their grip on Bucky’s chest. Neither of them said another word, however, because timing was on Ashley’s side, at least as far as distractions went, and the ground under them rumbled with the aftershock of an explosion that echoed its way from the center of the camp.
The sky lit up with deep hues of color, and before either of them could acknowledge anything that just occurred, Ashley and Bucky took off running for the base.
Despite being nothing more than a projection (or a hallucination, Ashley still wasn’t one hundred percent sure), Arthur still decided to obey the rules of physics, sitting down on the ground beside her. Ashley had a flash of memory of the time before, when they first learned the ropes of astral projection, and Arthur thought it was funny to play with the projection and put himself into weird shapes and configurations. But Ashley also remembered that the Arthur who had done those sorts of things didn’t have the same dark rings or gaunt features tangled in his otherwise lovely face.
“You knew this was bound to happen at some point,” he said quietly, staring down at her sprawled body with a deep sadness.
Ashley did her best to shrug. “I mean, a couple of weeks ago, I didn’t even know who I was. I thought I was an orphan turned socialite turned superhero.”
Her brother gave her a disapproving look. “Don’t tell me you didn’t know there was something special about you. You always knew. Even when we were kids.”
“All kids think they’re special, Arthur. You can’t blame me for my delusions of grandeur as a six-year-old.”
He moved forward for a second that convinced Ashley he had wanted to lean over and help push away the hair that had fallen in her face. “You can’t avoid reality forever, Ashley.”
“But I did,” she said, with a surge of hope. Her voice turned sluggish as she remembered their last ending. “And you let me.”
“I tried to help you,” he said, smiling just a bit. “You and your quest to shut yourself out of this world. I’ll never understand. You knew it would eventually come to this.”
Ashley let her eyes close, and images of blood seared across the backs of her eyelids. “Back then, I just wanted to live, you know? Then you died, and I knew it was over.”
“We almost had a normal childhood,” Arthur mused. “Thanks to you.”
“We never knew our mothers, our dad was a sadistic monster, and I ran away from home at the age of 10. What do you mean?” Ashley asked, but her voice took on the same philosophizing kind of tone.
“Eh, more normal than before,” Arthur said.
“Maybe next time we’ll get a minivan,” Ashley conceded.
Arthur smiled. “Maybe,” he said, eyes full of meaning. Ashley started, but Arthur cut off her interruption with the start of his own monologue. “When you left,” he paused, and Ashley felt the weight of what he wasn’t saying press hard against her chest, “That was the first time something happened that wasn’t part of the game. And I think it’s because of what happened the time before.”
The weight on her chest pushed her further into the ground, at least as far as her conscience went.
“I knew what you were going to do, you know,” Arthur said, sitting fully on the ground next to his sister. “If the Tesseract was out of the picture, there was nothing on Earth connecting you to Morgan. But I thought you’d at least try to live on yourself,” he said wistfully. "At the very least, you should have this time."
“Well, I might have, if I hadn’t ended up in Tony’s path.” Ashley considered this for a moment. “Besides, I don’t mind remembering. I just didn’t like how much it hurt. And I didn’t understand what was happening. My friend was lying to me, and my brother was gone.”
Arthur shrugged. “It only hurt because you weren’t meant to have them.”
“What the hell does that mean?” Ashley asked.
“We aren't meant to dwell on the past,” he said, annoyingly cryptic. He sounded like their father. Ashley bit the inside of her cheek. The conversation lulled.
“Where are you, anyways?” she asked her brother after awhile. He just smiled at her sadly. It hurt more than she’d wanted it to.
She thought about all of the pasts had no memories of, wondered why this one was different, wondered why it hadn't happened before -or if it had, and she just didn't remember.
Having artifacts from her past -people from her past- meeting her in this life, becoming her family -for God’s sake, her best friend’s son was her adoptive father- had probably only made it that much more violent when Bucky appeared, the catalyst for her memory apocalypse, finishing off what touching the Tesseract had probably started. “Do you ever think it’s stupid, living the same stupid fairy tale over and over again?”
“No,” Arthur said, and Ashley knew he meant it. “Do you know what happens now?” he asked, pointing to her hands.
Ashley looked down at her body and realized with a start that, though she was still soaked in her own blood, her injuries had healed, turning into thin white scars where before there’d been a death sentence. Her hands, she noticed, were rid of that soft blue light. She was free. Arthur looked offended. “I didn’t want the mantle, Arthur," Ashley said, trying to explain. "I don’t want to be her."
At that, Arthur started to stand. Ashley followed him, finding that she was no longer in any sort of pain. In fact, she felt refreshed, and she hated herself for it. “You don’t really have a choice.”
With that, his projection burst into mist and disappeared.
Running toward the base at impressive speed, Ashley forced herself to focus on her strides rather than think about everything that had been brought to light only minutes ago. Beside her, Bucky’s breathing turned hard as he pushed himself to keep up with Ashley, who found surprisingly that her endurance actually existed, even though her time running and exercising in general -aside from the occasional sparring- had passed after the age of 10. Possibly before that.
As the pair approached the base, the air became thick with smoke, and Ashley saw flames scattered across the path ahead. Covering her nose and mouth with her shirt, Ashley did her best not to breathe too deeply. Beside her, Bucky seemed to have done the same thing, and Ashley could see only just above the bridge of his nose, his eyes rimmed with red as they pushed deeper into the smoky chaos.
Once she was closer to the center, Ashley saw that the fire was concentrated around the building that housed Arthur’s cell. In the brief moment she had to think before she grabbed Bucky’s hand and took off running, she wondered why on earth anyone would find Arthur valuable enough to break out of prison. But then she considered the fact that he was the literal reincarnation of King Arthur and thought that perhaps it was slightly valid.
“What’s going on?” Bucky nearly shouted in her ear.
“Hydra,” Ashley replied, pointing toward the door to the cells.
They made it to the door, which was thick with warped wood, and Ashley stopped in front of it, seeing a partially collapsed building in the distance, with a few unidentifiable figures scattered around it. Ashley gestured for Bucky to wait while she peeked inside the door. It barely surprised her to find bodies littering the floor like unfortunate confetti paper, and she felt nothing when she grabbed a gun from the nearest body and slipped outside to place it into Bucky’s hand.
Ashley gestured toward the falling building. “Go help them. I got this.”
He made to argue, but Ashley shushed Bucky by pressing the gun deeper into his hands as she kissed him, leaning into him only as much as she dared -“I need to do this on my own,” she said as softly as she could- before pulling away and escaping into the room full of bodies.
Her heart made its presence in her chest known and well documented. As she made her way slowly over to the cell, she held back the urge to retch as she pushed away the loose limb of a nearby soldier with the tip of her foot. Turning the corner, she saw the perpetrators, five of them, working valiantly at the bars locking Arthur in. Ashley grabbed the keys from a nearby drawer and held them up like a school bell before jingling them as loudly as she could.
Six pairs of eyes swiveled toward her. “Hello, boys,” Ashley said with a smirk. She wrapped her fingers around the ring of keys, letting a few fall in the cracks of her fingers. The Hydra agents reached for their guns, but Ashley charged them before any could be fully drawn.
Swiping her knuckles across the neck of nearest agent, she felt a sick pull as the edge of the keys found purchase in the fleshy skin of his throat. Ashley drove the keyed fist into the stomach of the next one and used her free hand to push the agent further down onto her makeshift claws.
As they screeched, Ashley felt arms wrap around her waist just before she was lifted up by an agent behind her, and Ashley flailed her arms and legs until she found an opening to thrust herself forward to the floor and twist toward the man and hit him in the groin, causing him to double over so that she could grab the back of his head and drive it into her knee.
When she heard the gunshot go off, Ashley immediately hit the floor, rolling onto her stomach and trying to see what had happened and where she’d been hit. Instead, she found herself uninjured and in a position to kick the legs out from under a nearby agent before getting back to a stand and grabbing the gun from the last one, using it to hit them hard on the back of the head, sending them down to the floor along with their companions.
Despite a lack of keys, Arthur’s cell door hung wide open. Ashley saw her brother sitting peacefully on his cot, watching her with amusement. “You haven’t lost your touch.”
Gun still in hand, she debated briefly the merits of using it before unloading the cartridge in a few familiar strokes, letting the piece clatter against the ground. “Asshole.” She looked down at the bodies. “This really the best they could send for you?”
“It’s not their fault I trained you,” Arthur said, eyes glittering obnoxiously.
Ashley scowled. “That’s not how it happened.”
“Still traumatized by Dad’s teachings, I see,” Arthur said, smirk stretching like taffy.
The ground rumbled familiarly –violently- and Ashley’s head flashed to Bucky, and she took off running. When she made it outside, the dust of rubble coated the air, a decent smoke screen for anyone looking for a daring escape.
Ashley cared little about the notion, instead pushing through the thickness and toward where she had sent Bucky, which happened to be the origin of the explosion. She yelled his name, trying to hear over the sounds of chaos strewn carelessly around her, but heard nothing in return.
Some of the dust dispersed, enough for Ashley to see Bucky lying in a heap of building a few yards away. Ashley ran to him, relieved at the sound of his hoarse coughing, falling beside him and wrapping him up in her arms. “I’m alright,” he said. “Ash, I’m fine.”
Looking him over to decide for herself that Bucky was alright, Ashley saw that in fact his leg was marred by blood, and Ashley grimaced. “You could’ve been killed,” she said as she grabbed his arms and started helping Bucky to his feet. He groaned at the effort, and Ashley put an arm underneath him for support, which she immediately relinquished when another band of Hydra agents rounded the corner and began shooting with abandon.
It took a moment for the agents to notice Ashley and Bucky, and when they did, aiming their guns instantly at the easy kills, Ashley felt her power surge up almost automatically, and with little effort, she threw her hand out and push the energy toward them agents, sending them flying through the air with little chance of survival. “Holy hell,” Bucky said quietly.
The energy drained from her as quickly as it had come, as though it was being sucked out of her through a straw, and Ashley leaned on Bucky for support despite his bad leg. He took on her sudden weight with a hiss of breath. “Ash, are you okay? Ash?”
They realized at the same time that they were being watched. Exiting the holding area was the man of the hour, holding a gun that he pointed straight at Ashley. Ashley put out her hand, but no more miracles burst from her hands like fireworks, and Ashley tried to step in front of Bucky, shield him as best she could, until she saw that her brother was telling her to duck.
Without thought, Ashley pulled Bucky down with her as Arthur shot the Hydra agent creeping up behind them before pivoting quickly and shooting the few remaining nearby. She didn’t have to look to know they were headshots. If Ashley had to guess, she’d say they all went through the right eye, but that part she never knew for sure. Sometimes he aimed for the left.
The excitement seemed to be over as the Allied soldiers began to appear like bugs crawling out of the woodwork, covered in soot and sawdust. Ashley helped Bucky to his feet again, nearly collapsing under his weight when Bucky himself found it difficult to stand at all, even with the support.
Arthur wordlessly came around to Bucky’s other side and helped Ashley hold up his weight. Guiding them to the infirmary, Ashley chanced a couple glances over to her brother but tried to limit her attention to the injured Bucky.
Unsurprisingly, the infirmary was stifling when they entered it, nurses sprinting back and forth with bandages and gauze for various patients. From what Ashley could see, it didn’t seem that the injuries were too serious. A few broken bones might have, hopefully, been the worst of it for their side, although Ashley had her doubts about that sort of luck. Quite a few, if she was being honest.
There was an empty bed toward the corner of the tent, and Ashley and Arthur half-dragged Bucky over amid his protests of being fine. A few of the soldiers who probably had night duty guarding Arthur looked over at them with wary, confused little eyes.
Ashley ignored them for the present moment in favor of focusing on Bucky. Once he was laid in a bed, protesting slightly less now that he was laying vertically, Ashley turned to her brother. Without a word, she asked him to explain himself.
“I’m a spy, Ash,” Arthur said quietly, staring at her like he was willing her to believe him.
She rolled her eyes and sat beside Bucky as she looked around for a free nurse. When there wasn’t one, she started tending to Bucky’s wound on her own, stealing gauze and other supplies from a nearby table, including the scissors she started using to cut the fabric around the bloody wound.
“Ash, I couldn’t tell you that I was a spy, but you have to believe me. When I heard about the cube being found, I knew I had to seek it out,” Arthur said, looking back at one of the soldiers who was staring at him rather mercilessly.
“I was going to destroy it, Ash,” he pleaded, “But then Schmidt started to suspect me. I had to prove my loyalty, you know? So I called you. I told him about you.” The last sentence was choked, whispered.
“Why would you destroy something Daddy told you to protect?” Ashley almost spit. She considered briefly the chance that he was telling the truth, but the fact of the matter was that, at the current moment, she didn't actually care too much.
“I know how much you hate this life,” he said, voice steadier than before, but still quiet. “Destroying the cube can end it all right here.”
A nurse deigned to grace Bucky with her presence, asking basic questions about his injury that Ashley didn’t care enough to listen to. She just wanted his leg patched up, and Ashley had already done most of the work anyways. Bucky met her eyes, and Ashley made a face that Bucky had to fight not to laugh at.
Arthur watched this interaction carefully before his sister stared back up at him, eyes gleaming, but not for him. “Are you going to take me back to my cell?”
Ashley shrugged. “You want to prove to me you’re not a completely irredeemable bastard, go back yourself. I’m not gonna stop you either way.”
Nodding slowly, Arthur gives the pair own last glance before turning on his feet to leave, staring down at the floor rather than face his old enemies.
Looking over at Bucky, Ashley saw him in the process of sitting up. He swung his legs over the side of the bed, grimacing only slightly. “Thanks,” Bucky said, gesturing to the gauze she’d put on him. Ashley just smiled faintly, content with a moment of silence. “This is so weird,” Bucky said finally.
Her laugh was bright despite her best efforts. “You’re absolutely right,” Ashley said, leaning her head against his shoulder, stealing back his hand.
“So, what happens now?”
Ashley sighed, cradling his hand in both of hers. “Well, if Arthur was being honest about the whole 'double-agent' thing –which makes no sense and I’m inclined to dismiss it- but if he was… we might be able to find the Tesseract and, if we’re lucky, destroy it for good.”
Bucky rested his head against hers. “What does that mean for you?”
Ashley shrugged into him. “Does it matter? This is war.”
He turned to her then, eyes hard. "I don’t want to lose you.”
A smile broke out on Ashley’s face, slow and lovely, and she slid her arm around his waist, hugging him against her. Bucky kissed the top of her head as Ashley buried her face in his shoulder. “Noted," she said quietly.
Ashley stared at the emptiness where her brother had been moments ago as though it would bring him back. Instead, she just felt her eyes unfocus, blurring the world around her like a smudge of colors. Part of Ashley envied her brother for being so sure in his conviction of the goodness of their destiny, but she also wondered if his tune would change if their roles were reversed. After all, Ashley thought it was probably much more rewarding to be a reincarnated warrior king than a homicidal fairy queen.
Her musings were interrupted by the Helicarrier descending from the sky, but also, more importantly, by the sharp cut of blue that fell through the air and splashed into the water below. Steve disappeared beneath its surface, and Ashley felt herself scream.
At the sight of him, Ashley felt a coldness wash over her. Unlike before, when her powers surged almost electrically, this coldness was entirely made of dread. When she considered this, Ashley felt herself remember the exact memory that had triggered her final burst of resurfaced consciousness.
She hadn't been there when he died, but she could imagine it. In her past life, she did, in her dreams. Falling, alone, in the cold, to a supposedly certain death. And what she did remember, the things she hadn't done, the things left unsaid, left her feeling empty. But at least now she knew.
Her revelation was cut short by the presence of another figure in this bright space she now found herself it. Ashley strained to look at them amid the white glow of what might have been a room or possibly a universe.
Before her, in this white, shimmering dreamscape Ashley now found herself in, standing up slowly as she sought her bearings, was a woman bathed in flickering shadows, ones that danced around her body like she was an effigy, and Ashley rolled her eyes at the dramatics at work. “I suppose this is where you tell me I can’t change my destiny, blah, blah, blah.”
The woman’s face was unpleasant to look at. Not because it was unattractive -because Ashley was sure this wasn’t the case- but rather because looking straight at this woman physically hurt Ashley’s eyes, and she found herself turning away even as she tried to appear strong.
A smile beamed on the woman’s face, which only made the pain of trying to see her face that much more unbearable. The woman reached out a hand, and without thinking, Ashley put her own out to meet hers. “This isn’t about the past anymore,” the woman said, her voice dissociated from any reality Ashley understood, the lack of features in the tone its only feature at all. Ashley felt drops of burning cold seep into her hand as the woman dropped her things into Ashley’s outstretched hand.
Pulling back her hand to examine her new belonging, Ashley was surprised to find that she was holding a few dull pebbles, drained of any color other than a murky, cloudy brown. She grimaced at the sight, and the woman responded by bowing her head. “This is the endgame.”
Ashley sat straight up, reality a mindless blur as she reoriented herself from the vision, coughing so hard she had to double over and roll onto her knees, pressing her palms into the ground as she regained her bearings. When she finally calmed down following what amounted to a very vivid and spontaneous REM sleep, Ashley remembered Steve’s fall and turned toward the water only to find that his body was sprawled out a few meters down the shore from her.
Stumbling on her wobbling feet, Ashley made it over to Steve and fell beside him, calling his name, heart pounding as she waited for a response. A painful moment passed before Steve rustled just a bit, still caught in the throes of unconsciousness. Ashley nearly laughed out of relief, running her fingers down the side of his battered face.
There were eyes boring into her back, and Ashley turned and saw Bucky watching her carefully at the treeline, his body dripping from his own fall, water mixing with the blood from his assorted wounds. As soon as their eyes met, he looked away and started to leave.
“Hey,” Ashley said, not daring to move from her spot beside Steve. Bucky stopped but did not look back. “Do you know who I am?”
He turned his head back at her, letting her catch just a bit of his face. Ashley felt her heart sink when he refused to say “yes.” She smiled anyways. “I love you,” she said, not sweetly or desperately, just a statement of fact that she wished she’d been wise enough to say before.
Bucky didn’t move for what seemed like years. “Take care of him, Ash,” he said, head facing toward the trees and voice low with control. Without another word, he disappeared into the trees, and Ashley refused to follow after him.
It had been weeks since the Hydra attack on the base, and Arthur was left rotting in the cell he willingly returned to. Ashley refused to admit any open affection for her estranged brother, but she did concede that she found it slightly unfair not to trust him now when -before he’d actually shown any kind of spine- the Colonel had been willing to risk their lives on what had previously been an unknown Hydra operative.
When Ashley presented this information to the Colonel in a manner that was nothing less than an entirely unprofessional dress down, he did not take it well. In fact, Ashley found herself kicked out of his office almost the moment her speech had been concluded. Honestly, Ashley was surprised he’d even let her finish.
“Apparently, the Colonel thinks that Arthur is ‘Hydra scum’ and ‘completely untrustworthy,’” Ashley told Bucky, rolling her eyes and shaking her head. Bucky raised an eyebrow at her. “Yeah, okay, I know that he is,” she said, leaning toward Bucky so she could kick his knee lightly, her seat on the desk the perfect angle while Bucky sat spinning in a desk chair, “Probably,” she added, earning a pointed look. She ignored it and said, “But he ignored it before when I threw a fit about it. Now when I agree with his earlier judgement, that’s when he finally changes his mind?”
“The attack caught him off-guard,” Bucky said, swiveling back and forth in the chair. “Obviously your brother is more important than we thought if Schmidt was willing to send a bunch of his other men to go and get him.”
Ashley rolled her eyes again. “He’s not important, he’s just powerful. Schmidt doesn’t care about Arthur as a Hydra agent, he thinks that Arthur can help him unlock the power of the Tesseract.”
“Can he?” Bucky asked, pushing his good leg against the ground and sending the chair into a full, childish spin.
Stopping the nonsense with her foot, catching the arm of the chair, Ashley smiled at Bucky before considering his question. He grinned up at her. “Not without me,” she said after consideration. Their smiles both faded.
“Then let’s hope you don’t turn over to Hydra,” Steve said, leaning against the door frame. Ashley and Bucky looked up at their friend, who at this point started walking toward them like a person instead of hovering over them like a god. She wondered for a moment how long he'd been there but figured it better not to ask.
Ashley gave him a sideways glance, smirking. “What’s in it for me if I stay?”
Steve just shook his head, politely amused. “So you want your brother out of the cell?”
“Just for the mission. I don’t think it makes sense to lock him up when he might actually be useful this time. He knows where the stronghold is, and more importantly he knows what’s inside of it,” Ashley said. She’d said the same thing, in an admittedly more attacking tone, to the Colonel. Now, though, Steve seemed more inclined to agree with her, teetering on the edge of a decision.
He looked over at his childhood friend, and Bucky smiled reassuringly at him. “It’s our best shot, Steve.”
“Why?” he asked, turning to Ashley. She thought for a moment.
Steve hadn’t asked her about the explosion since that first confrontation, and after she’d admitted to him that Arthur was her brother, their relationship had solidified to the point where Ashley knew they were friends and that he trusted her.
But she hadn’t told him everything she’d told Bucky. Steve only knew that she was connected to the cube, that she was meant to die by it. It seemed only fair for him to ask her intentions for the thing that controlled her entire life. “Because Schmidt needs to be stopped and the cube needs to be destroyed.
Steve considered this. “Let me talk to him,” Steve said, then looked at Ashley. “I assume you have a plan?”
Ashley smiled wickedly, and Steve nodded and walked off, meeting Bucky’s eyes briefly before he left. They exchanged the sort of wordless communication that Ashley appreciated in friends, but not when she was sure it was about her. “What?” she said, tapping Bucky’s chair with her toes.
“That was a fairly short meeting,” Bucky said, standing up from the chair and leaning toward her, placing his palms on the desk, one on each side of her. Smiling, Ashley put her hands on his waist and pulled him flush against her.
Once he was close enough for her liking, Ashley tangled her fingers in his hair, and as she did, Bucky leaned in and buried his head in her shoulder, pressing warm kisses against her bare neck.
Kissing his temple, Ashley said, “Thanks for backing me up.”
Bucky lifted his head and looked at her. “Always.”
It was hard for Ashley to conjure any kind of verbal response to that, so instead she pressed her fingers into his scalp and kissed him hard. In response, Bucky shifted his position so that he was squarely between her legs, legs that quickly wrapped around his as Bucky took her in his arms, lifting her slightly to give her a better angle.
With one of her legs, Ashley squeezed him tighter against her, which gave Bucky the chance to lean her back against the desk, pushing and scattering some of her papers, sending them flipping and floating onto the floor.
Now on her back, Ashley tilted her head to signal to Bucky to kiss her neck, and he started at her collarbone, his tongue moving its way up slowly to just behind her ear. When he made it to his destination, Ashley shivered, part from the kiss and part from the soft spot Bucky had hit as a result. She felt Bucky smile into her cheek. “Ticklish?”
Ashley pulled her head back, scowling. “Never.” Narrowing her eyes, she twisted her body and maneuvered them both until it was Bucky sprawled across the desk, with Ashley hovering over him, leaning close to his face without ever touching it, letting her cool breath brush against his ear as she said, “You?”
“So I was hoping you’d be here,” Howard said, the sudden presence of his voice causing Ashley to jolt upward, vaulting herself off the desk and to a standing position faster than she thought possible, her face blazing red with heat she wasn’t used to, trying to stop her heart from roaring and giving her away as though she hadn't done that just fine on her own.
Bucky was a little slower on the take, sluggish as he rolled himself off the desk, in the process messing up more of Ashley’s things. “But,” Howard continued, smug smile brightening his features, as it tended to do, “Maybe I should come back when you’re not busy.”
“You were supposed to be gone for the day,” Ashley said, trying to maintain some dignity as she pointedly did not look at Bucky. She sighed. “What do you want?”
“Steve told me about your little plan to ambush Hydra and all that,” he said slowly. Howard had known about Arthur’s relation to Ashley almost immediately following the unfortunate incident with his punctured hand. He now knew most of her own situation after she’d nearly destroyed his lab and demanded explanation, which was fair. Yet despite his proclivity to knowing about Ashley’s secrets before everyone else, Ashley could see him trying to cover up the surprise at discovering this one, admittedly not a secret she cared to keep particularly well.
“So I was wondering if you’d be able to test out some of the new prototypes, see if they’re worth reproducing for the mission.” Howard looked at Bucky, who was trying to hide his own smile behind a mask of professionalism. The attempt nearly made Ashley laugh out loud. “Sergeant Barnes, since you’re here, maybe you could test them out as well.”
Bucky nodded curtly. “Yes, sir.”
At that, Ashley caught her laugh in her throat, her body lurching forward at the near-miss. Howard held out a case for her, and Ashley moved to retrieve it. As she stepped forward, Howard jerked it away from her and leaned into her ear and said, “Lock the doors when you’re done.”
He moved the case back within her reach, and Ashley swiped it out of his hand, fighting the urge to smack him in the head with it. “Goodbye, Howard.”
“Bye, kids,” he said, and Ashley heard him snort halfway up the staircase.
She turned to Bucky, case in hand, and lasted a couple of seconds before they both started laughing, faces red and blotchy as they laughed at their own embarrassment. “Oh, God, that was so bad,” Ashley breathed.
“Your face…” Bucky said, laughing madly. “Oh, wow, I would have paid for that picture, Jesus.”
“Jesus,” Ashley said, nodding wisely. She looked down at the case in her hand, then put down on her mess of a desk, unlatching it. Inside, unsurprisingly, were quite a few guns, all different shapes and sizes, but made for the same thing. “Huh.”
Bucky stood close beside her. “‘Huh’ what?”
Ashley shrugged. “I just kind of assumed he was lying. Trying to escape, you know? But I guess we’re really doing this.”
Putting his arms around her, Bucky let Ashley lean against him, and she felt his heart beating against his chest as they swayed slightly. The movement centered her thoughts, and she put her hands over his as he said, “Doing what? This?” He squeezed her against him, and she laughed, knocking her head lightly against his shoulder.
“This mission. We could take down Hydra. Or we could all die,” she said.
Bucky rested his head on hers. “We might.” They stood in silence for a minute until Bucky gently turned Ashley around to face him. “Look, Ash, whatever happens, it’s gonna be okay.” Ashley nodded, letting her head fall over Bucky's heart, feeling it beat steadily as he kissed the top of her head reverently, and in that moment Ashley hoped against everything that he would be right.
In the span of Steve’s time as a fugitive, Ashley somehow had not found the time to get over her deep-rooted adversity to hospitals. Nor, admittedly, had she tried very hard.
When Steve was being carted off by paramedics, Ashley didn’t think too much about where they were going, instead focusing on her friend and worrying that she was going to lose him. It wasn’t until Steve was in surgery and thus out of Ashley’s reach that she had the free time to realize where she was, the sterile white walls tightening around her like a slow-moving jaw.
Sam saved the day by showing up and being equally as worried about their friend as Ashley, working up her anxiety level in a way that was actually helpful in some bizarre, distracting sort of way. Natasha had done even better by pretending that she wasn't worried, balancing out Sam's obvious anxiousness with a carefully-hidden version of it. At the very least, their equal-but-opposite presence got Ashley through until the time the doctors finally let her enter Steve’s room.
He managed to look peaceful despite the massive bruising and the stitches lining his face like a baseball. Ashley thought that this might have been the first time in days that he actually slept.
Taking his gauze-wrapped hand, Ashley considered how tough the past few days had been for all of them, and the toll that becoming a fugitive and finding out that his best friend had been alive and tortured for 70 years must have had on him. Would continue to have on him.
“I certainly didn’t help things either, did I?” Ashley murmured. Sam walked through the door a bit later, armed with coffee. “You’re a godsend,” Ashley told him, accepting the caffeine with her free hand.
“Hey, it comes at a price,” Sam said, smiling at her.
Ashley raised an eyebrow at him. “Yeah?”
“What the hell are you?” Sam asked. It wasn’t attacking, or even particularly aggressive, but Ashley felt the question reverberate in her chest.
“I’m his friend,” Ashley said, sipping at the coffee. It was scalding hot, and she welcomed the change, though she had to fight not to spit the coffee out.
“Yeah, I know that, but how?” Sam said, taking a sip of his own drink before nearly choking on the burning hot liquid. “How the hell-?”
“We met during the war,” Ashley said, setting the cup down on the table. She wasn’t one to forsake coffee, but she could only handle so much rebellion.
Sam gave her a sideways glance. “You don’t mean New York.”
“You know that I don’t,” Ashley said simply, taking her friend’s hand in both of hers. His body looked like a morbid patchwork quilt, with cuts scarring their way over his face and wounds stitched and grafted all over the rest of him. "Where's Nat?"
"Didn't want to crowd the room," Sam said. Ashley frowned, but let her go. They'd talk later. She let her mind drift back to Steve.
If Steve hadn’t been him, he’d have been dead ten times over, which wasn’t something Ashley cared to think about, but the thought kept appearing anyways.
Studying his mummified hand, Ashley almost missed Steve turn his head to the side, his eyes opening at varying degrees since one was nearly swollen shut, and look at Sam. “On your left,” he said quietly.
Sam leaned back in his chair and smiled slowly. “Thought we’d lost you, Cap.”
“Can’t get rid of me that easy,” Steve said, his smile pulling tightly on his stitched cheek, making him look like a wrinkled old man. He moved his head to face Ashley, who was still holding his hand as she stared at him, relieved but cautious. “Hi, Ash.”
“How you feeling?” she asked with faux calm.
“I’ve been worse,” Steve said, breathing a little laugh. “You still mad at me?”
Ashley curled her fingers around his hand and squeezed gently. “Unbelievably so.”
“Aw, come on, you can’t be mad at him. He almost died,” Sam said cheerfully.
“So did I,” Ashley said to Sam, smiling faintly. Sam nodded and started to get up to give them a moment. Ashley shook her head. “Later,” she said, meeting Steve’s eyes. “I’ve gotta make a call. Just wanted you to know I was here.”
Carefully placing Steve’s injured hand back on the bed, Ashley stood up from her seat and exited the room, figuring she’d give the friends a bit of time to talk before she started badgering Steve with questions and a probably unwanted conversation.
She pulled out her phone once she made it out to the lobby, sighing when she found Nat nowhere in sight, searching for the number she needed. It rang for ages before the voicemail picked up, all the while Ashley was alternatively bouncing her leg and pacing across a small space of the room. When it was time to begin her message, Ashley took a breath before saying, “Hi, Pepper, it’s Ashley. I just… wanted to call and let you know everything’s okay. Let me know when you get this. Bye.”
Once she hung up, Ashley considered her options, trying to avoid the most obvious one. Finally, looking back at the room, she let out another huff of breath before making the call. He picked up on the second ring. “Where the hell have you been?”
“Good to hear your voice, too,” Ashley said dryly.
“Ashley, it’s been days,” Tony said, and Ashley actually felt guilt pang in her chest at the sound of his voice, the raggedness laced in it.
“I told you I was in DC,” she said.
“Are you okay? What’s going on?” he demanded. Ashley informed him of Steve’s condition, saying she wasn’t sure when she’d be back. On the subject of hospitals, Tony asked again, “Are you okay?” She replied with an affirmative. Tony sighed on the other end. “What happened, Ash? I got that message you left me. I thought you had died. This was supposed to be a business trip.”
Ashley shrugged before remembering he couldn’t see it. “It was meant to be," she said, though at this point she kind of realized it was a lie, whether or not she said as much, "But things came up. Steve needed my help.”
“He always needs your help,” Tony said, and she could picture him pinching the bridge of his nose in that pretentious, frustrated little way of his. “We all do.” There was silence between them before Tony said, “I heard the Triskelion was destroyed, along with a number of 'classified intelligence-driven air carriers.' Don’t suppose this has anything to do with that?”
“Suppose away,” Ashley said, smiling just a bit.
“Look, whatever Steve got messed up in- “
“This isn’t about Steve, Tony. It’s about me." She sighed. "Look, I can’t come home right now, okay?” Ashley said, looking down at her hands. If she wanted to, she could make them glow with power, and the thought was more than she wanted to handle right then. “Not for a while. I need… I need to figure some stuff out. We can talk later, but I just needed you to know I was okay.”
Tony didn’t respond for a few seconds. When he did, his voice was strained. “Okay, kid.”
She wanted to tell him, reassure him that this wasn’t his fault, explain everything. But instead, she just said. “I’ll talk to you later, okay?” Finding this completely uninspired, Ashley added, “And you should really call Pepper.”
Though he initially protested, Ashley did her best to guilt him into considering the notion. “Bye, Tony,” she said finally.
“Bye, kid.” The line clicked off, and Ashley looked back in the room where Sam and Steve were, and she could see them both smiling as they talked. Ashley felt herself smiling too, and with the weakest of laughs, she found a seat in the waiting room and curled up, suddenly exhausted.
Captain America was a powerful guy, in terms of physical strength, etc., but Ashley had no idea he had powers of persuasion to boot. Within a day, the Howling Commandos were planning an assault on what Arthur confirmed was the Hydra stronghold housing Johann Schmidt, and with his help, they planned what they believed to be a surefire deal.
A week later, Ashley found herself in the middle of that same base, sticky with soot, wisps of it clinging to her like static as she stumbled around the haze, trying to find her way through the blindness.
Not a minute ago, Arthur had been beside her, pointing out the possible directions -left for the lab, right for the garage- when they’d been cut off by a sudden and massive jolt, and Ashley found herself being thrown across a room as a wall cascaded down behind her. On the other side, she hoped, were the Commandos, dazed but unharmed.
Ashley pushed herself to her feet and squeezed her eyes shut against the floating drywall as she reached out for the makeshift wall separating her from her allies. Her hands found only the crumbling pieces of the collapsed wall. “Hello? Can you hear me?”
It appeared that they couldn’t, because Ashley received no response other than drywall toppling and smashing into the ground around her. “Arthur?” she called, knowing he had to be on her side, having been right beside her when the nonsense occurred. Ashley refused to consider the alternative, even as she found no evidence of his presence around the area.
Cut off from the nearest escape route, Ashley figured there was no point in not trying to salvage this disaster of a mission. Any minute, there would be Hydra agents crawling around the hall, so Ashley made a split-second decision and turned the left corner, feeling the choice pull against her heart just like before.
Visibility improved the further away she got from the, now that she thought about it, rather controlled explosion. Ashley heard voices drifting from the first room on her right, and she pressed her body against the wall as she listened.
“You’ve been busy,” Schmidt mused, though he still managed to sound rather disinterested in the whole concept.
Arthur’s voice echoed out into the hallway. “I suppose I have.”
That was enough for Ashley to take a chance and draw her gun, and burst into the room, aiming for Schmidt’s head. Before she could even fire a shot, Schmidt, smiling madly, opened a case beside him, and pulsing blue light collapsed on Ashley’s vision, and she fell to her knees under the presence of the Tesseract, clutching at her head as she tried to regain her autonomy. She heard her knives clatter on the floor.
“Impressive,” Schmidt said, patronizing to say the least. His boots clicked against the tile floor, and as Ashley recovered the basic use of her senses, she could see the tile floor and the sleek counters that made this room a lab. Ashley could not see the Tesseract or her brother, as her line of sight was overrun by the presence of Schmidt towering over her.
“In its time on Earth, there have been few capable of harnessing the power of the Tesseract, and even fewer so connected to it. By birth, no less. As I recall, there are only two. You,” Schmidt snarled as he reached down and grabbed Ashley’s face, pulling it close to his, “and your brother.” He let go of her, tossing her head back as he did so, backing up a few steps to ask, “So where is your other half?”
Ashley blinked, suddenly wondering whether Schmidt actually knew Arthur’s role in all of this. Was he toying with her? If he wasn’t, then the attack on the base made no sense. But why else would he be asking her a question he already knew? Ashley could feel the Tesseract weighing down on her. “He’s dead,” she spat out.
A smile trickled across Schmidt’s gaunt red face like a spray of blood. He looked over at Arthur and shrugged, then turned back to Ashley. “I do admire your loyalty, soldier. I don’t suppose there’s any chance you’d offer it to me?”
Reaching out with her mind, Ashley held out her hand in the direction of the Tesseract’s pull and willed its power to hit Schmidt squarely in the chest. Though it was more of a backfire than a controlled blast, the Tesseract still sent Schmidt flying across the room and away from Ashley. The weight on her chest ebbed, and Ashley pushed herself to a stand, turning to her brother.
“Come on, let’s go,” Ashley said, then realized Arthur was not closing the case containing the Tesseract but instead reaching out a hand to touch it. Before Ashley could try to conjure another burst of power, Arthur held the cube in his hand, closing his eyes and whispering something Ashley could only guess. The Tesseract glowed coolly under his grasp, and as Arthur withdrew his hand, the ornate hilt of a sword began to protrude from the small portal the cube had opened up. Arthur closed his hand around the hilt and pulled out a sword -Excalibur, no doubt, from the way it thrummed with power- which gleamed almost supernaturally under its owner’s control.
“You really are a terrible brother,” Ashley said, anger bubbling under her skin. The cube flared in time with her emotion, and Arthur tried to smile at her.
“Ash, come on, I needed this,” he said, shifting the sword in his hand. He pushed the cube slightly toward Ashley, though not enough that she could grab it by the case and run. “Why don’t you trust me?”
Fighting the urge to say something vulgar, Ashley just shook her head. “Because I want to live,” she said as she pulled a knife from her belt.
Her heroics were cut short by the gunshots sounding from the other side of the room, where Schmidt was unhelpfully firing a gun in her direction. Ashley ducked behind a nearby table, now pulling the swords out of their sheaths on her back. “The cube," he commanded Arthur as Schmidt fired off the last few shots in his handgun.
Ashley felt the counter shake under the weight of Arthur rolling over it, and Ashley dove out of the way as he dropped to a crouch in front of her, thrusting out his new sword toward her head. She dodged it easily and smacked his blade away with her own. “Why go through all this effort to kill me?” Ashley asked through gritted teeth as she stood up and blocked the overhanded slash of Arthur’s sword. “You had so many chances.”
Arthur ignored her question as Ashley blocked another jab of Excalibur, surprised that her own swords were holding up against the assault of a magic-powered blade. Nevertheless, Ashley accepted this useful fact gratefully, turning to get a better angle to slash at her brother’s throat, hearing the metallic clank of sword on sword and withdrawing before Arthur could get the upper hand.
In an attempt to throw him off, Ashley kicked out a leg in Arthur’s direction, causing him to jump back to avoid the blow. As he recovered from this sudden shift, Ashley used her momentum to slam the hilt of one of her swords into Arthur’s chest, sending him to the ground with a thump as Excalibur spun away and out of his reach. Ashley reveled in this easy victory and held a sword to Arthur’s throat.
“Ashley?” she heard a voice say. It was Bucky, and as she made this connection, Ashley felt her sword yanked forward by Arthur, who had wrapped his hand around the blade and pulled hard, causing the bloodied sword to be ripped from her hand and into Arthur’s. He kicked her knee in and sent Ashley to the ground, using the momentum to roll over and put his sword to Ashley’s throat.
She heard Bucky running to her, but Arthur sliced open Ashley’s throat long before Bucky could have had a chance to stop it. Blood streamed down her neck as Ashley’s head rolled to the side, and Arthur dropped her body and retreated toward Schmidt, leaving Ashley coughing and sputtering in a pool of her own blood.
Bucky was at her side in moments, his hands hovering uselessly over her neck, and there were tears rolling down his face as he took Ashley in his arms, running his bloodied hands down her face and over her hair. “You’re okay, Ash. You’re gonna be okay.”
Ashley tried to speak but found that blood gurgled in her throat at every attempt. She threw her hand toward Bucky’s shoulder, hoping to reassure him, but she could still see the red burning in his eyes, the devastation burying itself in his face as her eyes fell closed.
When her vision lit up with blue, she blinked her eyes opened to find Bucky hugging her against his chest, his chest shaking with sobs. “Bucky, hey,” she coughed out, pulling her head off of his shoulder. Bucky lurched back, red-rimmed eyes going wide at the sight of her awake and talking. “I’m alright.”
“What? How-?” His breaths were ragged, and he hugged her tighter against his chest.
Ashley half-smiled and lifted a hand to his face, cupping his cheek in her hand, finding it wet with tears and blood. “The cube. I think it healed me.”
He blinked, nodding slowly as he tried to absorb this information. “Well, that's a relief," he said, still dazed.
It was hard not to roll her eyes. “I'm sure,” she said, kissing his cheek before getting herself to a stand, reaching out a hand to help Bucky up himself. He took it, hand warm and slick with blood. Ashley made a face, but it was her blood, so she couldn’t complain too much. His entire front was drenched in it. “We’ve gotta find my brother.”
The pair took off running. “Where are the others?” Ashley asked.
“Trying to find the cube,” Bucky said with a weak smile. “I went looking for you.”
“What a sap,” Ashley said as she focused on the Tesseract, feeling herself drawn toward what she believed Arthur had labeled as the storehouse, the power of it curling its way into and up her spine. Her hands shook, but she kept running. “And Hydra?”
“Evacuated, as far as we can tell. Ash, I think-“
“It was a trap. Yeah, I got that,” Ashley said, feeling the betrayal in her bones.
“Yeah, but not for us. Ash, I think this is about you,” Bucky said.
Ashley huffed. “Well, great, now I’m an attention whore.”
Bucky grabbed her arm to stop her, and Ashley relented, facing Bucky as he met her eyes. “Ash, I’m serious. This… I thought you died.”
“I know,” Ashley said, and she held Bucky’s hand for a second before letting their hands fall beside them. “But this is still our best chance to get the cube. I have to try.”
With that, they resumed their run toward the storehouse, making it there in what Ashley wanted to call record time, despite the obvious reasons it wasn’t exactly apropos.
“Your sword hardly matters without the girl,” Schmidt said, his voice ringing across the almost empty space, save for the cars scattered across, one that Schmidt clearly intended to use. “Is she really dead?” There was a pause as someone, presumably, answered, and then a shot burst through Ashley’s eardrum.
Ashley screamed as Arthur slumped down against the wall, and she realized too late that this was exactly what Schmidt wanted. “Ah, so you’re useless and a liar,” Schmidt said, turning to Arthur with a smug smile.
He raised his gun to shoot at Arthur again, but without thinking, Ashley threw out her hand and sent a burst of energy Arthur’s way, and it coagulated in front of him, stopping the bullet aimed for his head before it dropped and clattered harmlessly on the ground. “Ashley,” Bucky whispered, either awestruck or horrified. She didn’t really want to know which.
Schmidt turned to her, and Ashley saw that the case was in his hand. He followed her eye and smiled. “It’s yours if you want it. You could even kill me with it. The legends of Morgan Le Fae speak of incredible power.”
“Bucky, please leave,” Ashley murmured. Bucky moved closer beside her, letting his hand fall near hers. She fought back a small smile, even as fear and panic warred in her chest. “Are you asking me to kill you?”
“On the contrary. I’m asking you to fight alongside me. With your power and my army, we could shape the world.” Behind her, Ashley felt the compound rock with an explosion. Apparently, Schmidt had found no reason to change up his old tricks, and alarms began blaring in the background. “Time is running out, Morgan.”
Ashley fought back a smile as a shape formed behind Schimidt's figure. She shrugged. “For you, maybe.”
Schmidt turned as Arthur plunged the sword into what should have been his chest, but the slight angle meant that Excalibur found purchase in Schmidt’s shoulder instead. He screeched in pain, but as Arthur drew back the sword, a closer explosion made the ground beneath them rumble violently, and though Arthur managed to retain his footing, he left himself completely unshielded, and before Ashley could even try to save him with the Tesseract, Schmidt fired three bullets directly into Arthur’s chest. All she could do was watch.
He died before he hit the ground. This event happened in time with Excalibur clattering against the ground as well, and Ashley felt the dual shocks rattle her whole body. Ashley started to run toward her brother, but Bucky wrapped his arms around her, holding her back even as she fought against him, sinking against his body like a ragdoll. During their fight, Schmidt picked up the sword and smiled, pointing it toward Ashley. “Next time, little one,” he said, as the ceiling rained down more dust and he escaped into his car.
The car peeled off moments later, and Ashley collapsed into sobs as Bucky pulled her toward the nearest exit, dust and smoke raining down on them as they ran for their lives, although Ashley was only barely aware of any of this. Her mind was on Arthur, or more importantly the last thing he’d told her.
Just before he died, he’d closed his eyes and sent her a message, the same way the used to when they were kids thinking that magic was a cool toy, projecting pointless jokes into each other’s heads at a near-constant rate.
This time, there wasn’t that same air of innocence to his projection. Instead, in his last moments, Arthur had told her, “Destroy it or don’t. Just stop running, More.” Ashley tried to hate him for it, even as she ran away.
Despite all odds, Ashley had managed to curl up into a semi-comfortable position in the waiting room chair, and as she felt Nat gently shake her shoulder, she resented the disruption greatly. “Someone had better be dying,” she said tiredly, stretching out her limbs like a cat in the sun.
Nat stared at her, and she could see on her face that she was trying to figure out if Ashley knew what she was saying or not. “I mean, take your pick,” she said, deciding on the former.
Ashley wanted to curl back up into her little ball. “Twenty more minutes.”
“He asked for you,” Nat said. “You should go talk to him.”
Sighing, Ashley sat up in her chair, trying to wake herself up, but the tiredness clung to her like a leech. “Did you talk to him?"
"Yeah," Nat said, and she sat down on the seat that Ashley had now freed by sitting up like a normal person, not meeting Ashley's eyes.
"You try to set him up on another date? Maybe 3?" Ashley asked, her exhaustion apparently making her bold.
Nat glanced at her sideways. "I figured I'd give him a day or two," she said, sounding bored but only to those not looking for the deception. "Then try for 5."
Ashley smiled, but felt it still important to say, "He's not like that, you know." She chose her next words carefully. "He won't fall in love with any random person you set him up with. It just won't work."
In a perfect lack of displaying emotions, Nat shrugged. "I know."
Sam entered the room, as he was prone to do, with more caffeine. Now it was Nat's turn to look grateful, and as she took to steaming cup from Sam, she nodded her thanks. He turned to Ashley, having no such drink to offer her, which hurt. "You can have coffee after you stop avoiding the man."
Ashley rolled her eyes. "Who are you, my father?"
"Whatever gets you to stop being a child," Sam said, as though he couldn't match her antics quip-for-quip, as though he was a mature adult, as though...
Ashley sighed and stood up. "Tea, preferably one with mint, steep it until it looks like swamp water.
Sam smiled as he sat down beside Nat, stealing Ashley's seat. “You got it, kid.”
She rolled her eyes, considered flipping Sam the bird before deciding it would only prove his point.
As Ashley started to walk over, Sam said, “Hey, Ash?" She spun back to face him. "Are you planning on sticking around? After everything?”
The question threw her, and Ashley tried to cover it up with a cryptic look at the floor. Sam and Nat both waited expectantly for her answer. “I have no idea,” she said finally before disappearing over to Steve’s room.
“Whatever’s going on with you, I hope you figure it out,” she heard Sam say.
“Work in progress,” Ashley said quietly. With that, she knocked lightly on the door of the room. She heard Steve’s voice and entered.
His face was bright as she came into the room, and Ashley was struck by how much more alert he seemed than when he first woke up. She wasn’t prepared to have a conversation with smiley and cheery Steve, but Ashley figured she was probably better off with this version anyways. “They give you the good drugs, I take it?”
Steve looked down at the IV in his arm. “I doubt it. Probably wouldn’t work on me anyways. Waste of morphine.”
Ashley went over to examine the bag, which had a mysterious clear liquid that Ashley was pretty sure was just a glucose drip, but she wasn’t an expert. “Right, because the guy currently more gauze than human doesn’t need painkillers.”
“What can I say, I’m a soldier,” Steve said, his eyes gleaming.
“So was I,” Ashley said, sitting down on the edge of Steve’s bed. He watched her, staring at the spot where her body pressed into the bed. She sighed. “Did you really think you could protect me from this?”
Steve’s eyes flickered up to hers. “You can’t blame me for trying.”
“I absolutely can,” Ashley said with a dark laugh. “You lied to me. From the moment we met, you were lying to me. Why?”
“I didn’t know for sure, at first,” Steve said. Off Ashley’s look, he added, “Don’t get me wrong, you looked and talked and mostly acted like you did before. But there was something off. When the explosion happened and you lived, that’s when I knew it was you.”
Ashley stared at him. “What do you mean ‘mostly’?”
He shrugged. “I don’t know. Part of me wondered if you were just a relative. Like your granddaughter or something. I don’t know. You just seemed off.”
This information disturbed her in a way she couldn’t quite place, but there was a more important confrontation to have before tackling whatever this new stuff meant. “Okay, but when you did know, why didn’t you tell me?”
Steve looked pained to say it, but he powered through. “The Tesseract was gone, and you were happy.”
Ashley scoffed. “My memories were stolen, and I was in constant pain from the Tesseract trying to bring back those memories -my goddamn powers, which you knew were not just from a freak accident- and you still thought it was okay to leave me in the dark?” she said, her chest heaving at the end, fists balled against the sheets. She took a breath. “Steve, what were you thinking?”
Silence hung between them like fog.
“I didn't want you to die,” Steve said finally.
Ashley knew what he meant, but she didn’t let him see that.
“After Bucky…” he trailed off, took a breath. “You told me that being connected to the cube meant you had to die. But you also said that when you fought back against it, that was when you failed. I thought maybe, as long as you didn't know what you were fighting, you'd be okay.”
She remembered the conversation. It wasn't the most illogical idea she'd ever heard, but Ashley didn't think that made it any less stupid, and she told him so. Steve nodded, shrugged.
“Did they come back?” he asked. The way he asked the question, his slowed speech, the slight tilting of his head, betrayed the wariness Steve really wanted to hide.
Ashley felt her lips purse as she worded her response in her head. “Remember when I told you about that paper I wrote about you in high school?" she said slowly. Steve nodded. "I got an ‘A’ on it.” Steve smiled faintly. “And, you know, the books, they covered the war. The battles, the soldiers, even the deaths they got pretty alright. But the humanity of it all… I was there, and I still can’t reconcile the people, the lives that somehow managed to be swept up in it all.” She frowned. “Yeah, I remember everything. But my powers, they’re gone. I pushed them away, for now. Something changed, though.”
In as much detail as she could manage, she told Steve about what had happened during her fall, and the vision with the woman and the stones. But while Ashley had decided that Steve had meant well in his secrecy, and though she more or less still trusted him, she didn’t tell him about Arthur. This partial lack, however, didn’t seem to affect Steve’s unsurprising response of concern. “What do you think it means?” he asked her
“Did I ever tell you that I’m Morgan Le Fae?” Ashley said, plastering a smile since she knew full well that she hadn’t. Everything but that. Steve’s eyes widened as much as they could, swollen as they were, and Ashley took this as an expected affirmative. “Yeah. So that’s a thing.” And she explained that, too. By the end of it, Ashley wondered if she should let Steve rest, since he had nearly died and all, but instead her friend prompted a whole other line of discussion.
“Did Bucky know?” he asked, staring off somewhere not near Ashley, as though whatever void he’d found would help clarify the bizarre set of lives Ashley’s had to live.
Ashley smiled. “He reacted worse than you did.” She considered this statement. “Actually, it depends on how you look at it.”
Steve met her eyes, silent asking for elaboration.
“Well, he was a little more hysterical about the whole thing. He had quite a few questions. I mean, the weirdest stuff he’d seen before then could be mostly explained by science.” Steve raised an eyebrow at “mostly,” but Ashley rolled her eyes and otherwise ignored him. “But, then, you know, after we got past that, he was fine with it.”
Steve shrugged his shoulders, which probably hurt more than he’d expected it to, but he continued with his nonchalance act anyways. “I’m fine with it.”
Ashley cleared her throat. “Yeah, but you weren’t, ahem, fine with it.”
The awkward smile spread across Steve’s face in time with his understanding of her subtext. “Right.”
This time, the silence between felt comfortable, and Ashley took his hand without thinking and said, “He dragged you out of the water, you know.”
“Even before I really remembered him, I knew… The things he must have been through, Steve. I don’t like him being out there on his own,” she said, squeezing her friend’s hand gently.
Steve squeezed back. “He won’t be alone. Not if I can help it.”
“Something changed when I fell in the water. My powers… I think this time might be different. I might not have to die.” Ashley was surprised at the wave of emotion that slammed against the inside of her gut. “And if that’s true…”
“I know,” Steve said, though truth be told, neither of them really knew anything, but they also didn’t care. Ashley nodded, comforted by this knowledge, at least. They talked for a bit more about nothing, and by the time Ashley left for her hotel room, she was reassured in the fact that she hadn’t lost her friend.
The whiskey glass swayed back and forth under Ashley’s command, her fingers tipping the glass around the table idly, the empty bar filled with the perfect acoustics for sending the clinking sounds bouncing across the room like overactive toddlers. Ashley didn’t notice this comparison, hardly even noticed the sound. She’d been left alone with her thoughts -the barkeeper, knowing when to leave well enough alone, having disappeared to the other side long ago- and remained as such until the sound of clicking boots against wood flooring brought Ashley back to reality.
“Enjoying the drink?” Agent Carter asked, standing at the door frame as though waiting for an invitation to step over the threshold. Ashley felt that this was incredibly polite of her, and thus felt immediately inclined to ignore such kindness by turning her attention back to the glass at hand.
“I don’t drink,” Ashley said, swirling the contents in the cup like mouthwash. “Father was big on it, so I try not to be.”
Agent Carter nodded from the threshold. “Don’t suppose you’d like some company?”
Ashley couldn’t quite decide if she’d wanted it or not. For the past few days, she’d pushed away anyone who’d tried, which was almost always Bucky, in the name of needing time to process. But she’d processed this tragedy so many times in her head, watching it play out over and over again, that now she just felt numb to the whole thing.. “It’s a free country,” she said finally.
“Actually, it isn’t,” Agent Carter said, taking a seat on the stool beside Ashley. “That’s why we’re here.”
“That’s why you’re here,” Ashley said, setting the glass down on the table, leaning back slightly in the seat. “I’m here for entirely selfish reasons.”
Agent Carter smiled, and Ashley was surprised at the warmth of it. “I won’t deny you that. But I also don’t believe it for a minute.”
Ashley shrugged, but the movement felt hollow.
“I know what it’s like to lose a brother,” Agent Carter said after a bit. “I know it isn’t easy.”
So one of those sweet, traitorous bastards had told her. Ashley sighed, pushing the drink away slightly with the pad of her finger. They waited on each other in perfect silence.
“When we were little,” Ashley said finally, a weak smile flitting across her face, “my father used to teach my brother how to fight. They’d spar in the backyard nearly every day, and I would be expected to either play with dolls or whatever else respectable young girls were meant to do. Usually, I just read instead, but sometimes I would go out and play with the neighborhood kids, sneak out when my father wasn’t looking, and if he found me before I could sneak out of my dirty clothes, he’d beat me senseless, telling me that’s no way for a lady to behave. So I knew better than to ask him to let me fight, too.
“But Thomas -Arthur- every night, he would wake me up so we could sneak out of the house once my father fell asleep. There was this clearing in the woods we’d found one night, and ever since we’d discovered it, that was where we would go. And my brother would teach me everything he’d learned, all of the jabs and blocks and combos, whatever he could remember. Sometimes we’d make up our own stunts, on the best of those nights. But we’d spar for what felt like hours. I got good at it. Really good. So did my brother, but I always thought there was something motivating about being forbidden. Sometimes my brother saw the fighting lessons as chores, but I never did.
“One night, we were being careless and loud as we snuck out of the house. We’d done it for over a year without being caught, so the arrogant children we were thought we were invincible. My father followed us and found out what we were doing. As soon as we started sparring, he came out and started yelling at us, at me, telling me over and over again that this wasn’t my role. It wasn’t my role.” Ashley let her eyes close for a minute as she took a deep breath. “Then, before my father could do his worst, Arthur jumped in front of me and said, ‘Dad, let her choose.’ He got beaten for that, had a godawful shiner for a week, but I never forgot that night. I just thought it was over. But a couple weeks later, Arthur woke me up and we did the same thing all over again. For years, actually. Until I left.”
“Sounds like he really loved you,” Agent Carter said, meeting Ashley’s eyes now that the latter had deigned to look up at her.
Ashley sighed. “Maybe. I don’t know. He was so ambivalent the rest of the time, I never actually knew what he was thinking. I mean, he was a Hydra agent, but then he wasn’t, and now I don’t even know what side he was on. He died fighting Schmidt, but I don’t know if he was always planning to take down Schmidt or if he just died from a moment of nostalgia.”
“I always find that, at least with the dead, it’s better to assume the best of them and be wrong than the other way around,” Agent Carter said.
“You have many cases of traitorous family members dying in your lifetime, Agent Carter?” Ashley asked with a wry smile.
“No, but I know a lot of dead people,” she said, but there was no malice behind the statement. Just unfortunate fact.
“I hear that,” Ashley said, lifting her untouched drink. She then held it out to Agent Carter, who smiled oddly as she took the glass from her with an amused and slightly apprehensive ‘thank you.’
Taking a sip of the scotch, Agent Carter sat the glass down again and said, “Of course, being in a situation where people die so easily, it should make you that much more grateful for what you do have.”
Ashley snorted, then tried to cover her mouth as a belated attempt to hide her uncouth amusement. “If this is going to turn into girl talk about Sergeant Barnes, I can already tell you I’m not here for it.”
Agent Carter raised an eyebrow at her, and Ashley wanted to feel put out by her contrasting lack of elegance, but it only made her smile. “I wasn’t referring to anyone in particular,” Agent Carter said, then added, picking up the glass again with her impressive nonchalance, “Though it is wildly interesting that your mind jumped there first.”
“I just assumed that you were recruited by him after I told him to get lost. Repeatedly,” Ashley said, her cheeks quickly filling to their max concentration of red.
“Not unless he went to Captain Rogers first,” she said.
Ashley scoffed, but she was pleased. “I have absolutely no doubt that he did.”
“You have good people looking out for you,” Agent Carter said. After a beat, she said, “I am very sorry about your brother, Ashley.”
“Thanks,” Ashley said, and she was surprised to find that she actually felt at ease. The thought of her brother still caught in her throat, but there was no longer that same fight or flight reaction she’d been anticipating at the mention.
Agent Carter stood up to leave. “If you need me, I’ll be in my office. And feel free to reach out whenever.”
“Thanks, Agent Carter,” Ashley said with a grateful nod.
“My friends call me 'Peggy,'” she said. "And you're welcome."
With another smile, she took her graceful leave. Ashley sunk into her seat as she left, thinking about her brother, what he’d said to her before he’d died. There hadn’t been much time to think about it as Bucky nearly dragged her out of the exploding building, almost dying inside of the Hydra compound before being thrown from the final collapse of it.
Even after they’d made it back to base, Ashley tried not to think about it too hard, about the implications anyways. But Peggy had brought all that to the surface, and while part of Ashley was grateful for it, she also had to recognize that while mourning was a natural and healthy process, she also hated how it made her feel like a child, the way people walked around eggshells or tried to comfort her.
Ashley also had to recognize what those feelings made her do, which is precisely how she ended up, once again, marching over to where she knew Bucky was, which provided a long walk from the bar to give her time to work out what she would say, and interrupt what seemed like a decent conversation between Bucky and his best friend by saying, “I need you.”
It was the best she could come up with, since her predetermined speech had been forgotten as soon as she’d met his eyes. For his part, Steve, as casually as he could, left Bucky so Ashley could further nix whatever reminiscing they’d been partaking in. Bucky gestured for her to come closer. “What’s up?” he said, far too casually for the way his eyes followed her as she got closer to him.
“You may have noticed recently that I have been slightly avoiding your existence,” Ashley began ever so tactfully.
Bucky answered with the completely valid response of raising his eyebrows, a veil of faux skepticism falling over his features. “Really?”
She did not roll her eyes at him, and this feat, Ashley felt, deserved acknowledgement, if not accolades. “Yes. And, so, with this in mind, I felt it was necessary to explain a few things in excruciating detail.”
“Is that so?” Bucky said, no longer following what was quickly turning into something that was no longer a bit.
“Well, in some detail. It’s just that…” Ashley sighed, trying to rid herself of the flippancy she’d found herself bouncing in on. “My brother is dead.”
Bucky dropped any hint of amusement on his face and moved closer to Ashley. “I know.”
He was close enough to touch, and so Ashley did the work for him, taking his hand in hers without any bit of ceremony. She let their hands hang loosely in the space between them. “Bucky, I don’t want to die,” Ashley said, and she had to grind the last word out through her teeth to keep her voice from breaking.
Her eyes closed, and she felt Bucky gently coax her into his arms, and Ashley let him hold her against him, just for a bit, before pulling away again. “Before he died, my brother told me to stop running.” Ashley took in a breath, then smiled at Bucky. “And that’s exactly what I’m going to do.”
The moment Ashley walked through the door of her hotel room, exhaustion seemed to fall on top of her like a warm blanket, heavy and inviting. She threw down her bags, kicked off her shoes, and only after she did this did Ashley realize that she was not alone.
Her window had not been open before she left, and it certainly hadn’t been occupied by a dark figure leaning against the edge of it like an oversized cat. Ashley jolted as she let the door behind her click shut. Though her first instinct was to call up her powers, when she recognized the outline of the figure as familiar, she gave up on the pointless endeavor immediately.
Sliding the overhead light’s brightness up to a dim, barely noticeable lighting that in other circumstances might have been enticing, Ashley instead thought that perhaps this would signal an olive branch on her part. The figure did not respond to this attempt, still perched at the window, and despite the new lighting, he was almost as dark as before.
Somehow, Ashley managed to find the willpower and the tranquility to slowly pick up her previously discarded bag from the floor and begin to unpack its more important contents –her keys, her wallet, and her phone– the last of which got a slight reaction from her ghostly friend. “Relax,” Ashley said softly. “I’m not going to use it.”
She was met with continued silence, which Ashley was starting to find slightly irritating, despite everything. “So how did you get in here?” she asked, trying to fill the void. “I’m half a million stories up, so I hope you didn’t climb the whole way up here.” Ashley glanced over at Bucky, narrowing her eyes at his stillness. “Or, hell, maybe I do.”
More silence. “Steve’s alright, in case you were worried. Doctors say he’ll be good to go in a day or so, since it's Steve. Just needs bedrest, though I doubt he’ll actually listen to that advice.” She smiled at the thought of her friend trying to escape from his prescribed bedrest while she, Sam, and Nat undoubtedly fought with him during his attempts. “He hardly ever does what’s best for himself.”
There was still no response from her visitor, and though Ashley’s heart was squeezed tightly in her chest, it was also pounding against it like an angry prisoner. “Bucky, what are you doing here?” she asked as gently as she could.
Seconds passed like hours. “I don’t know,” said Bucky’s graveled-coated voice. Ashley did her best not to react to the sudden sound, which apparently had been the right thing to do, because Bucky said, “You weren’t in the museum.”
"Museum?" Ashley asked. Bucky shrugged.
He meant, Ashley assumed, the new Captain America wing at the Smithsonian. How he’d managed to get in without detection, Ashley really didn’t know. The metal arm alone seemed dicey. But she just said, “My records were destroyed. Nobody but you and Steve remember I was even there.” And Peggy, perhaps, but that was irrelevant to the current narrative. “Did you read about Steve?”
Ashley saw him nod in the dim light. “You’re in there, too. Steve told me they even have your old uniforms.”
“I don’t remember it,” Bucky said. “Being there.”
She considered this for a moment. “Then why are you here?”
His chest rose and fell slowly once before he said, “I saw you fall into the water. The blue light. I remembered that.”
It was a question, whether it sounded like one or not. Ashley, not sure what else to do, decided on taking a risk. She stepped closer to Bucky, just a step, and held out her hands. He tensed at that alone, Ashley noticed, and when she willed the remnants of her power into her hands, she watched him flinch, reaching for his gun. His hand hovered there for a moment before he lowered it, perhaps assessing that Ashley did not intend to hurt him with it.
The blue light lit up her palm like there was a flashlight under her hand, lighting up the skin with color. Ashley let it flicker, the dying light of the last of her stolen power now well within her control. She knew it would be gone in a moment, but Ashley was focused on Bucky as he took a step toward her, and another, until he could have reached out and touched her outstretched hands with little effort. “Does it hurt?” he asked.
Ashley shook her head. “Not anymore.”
He looked up from her hands and into her eyes, and Ashley was unprepared for the intensity in them. She blinked, temporarily stunned as he asked, “Did it?”
After a gulp, Ashley nodded and said, “My powers are connected to an energy source called the Tesseract. Do you remember it?” Bucky shook his head, then returned to watching her hands. Ashley had barely noticed they were still coated with blue. “It was lost in ice shortly after you –I– died. Then it resurfaced, and I ended up touching it, during the Battle of New York.” Bucky didn’t react to this name, which she’d expected of him for some reason, so Ashley took a breath and continued, “So my powers started showing up, which might not have mattered, except that one of my friends now was a friend from my past, and even that might not have mattered if this thing hadn’t all happened and I found… you.” The implication there was not what she intended it to be, and Ashley couldn’t just end on that note, so she said, “My memories returning en masse hurt. Not remembering you specifically.”
“This doesn’t usually happen?” Bucky asked, still watching her hands.
“I don't think so. I didn't remember anything before. But this time, I didn't even know what I was. I..." She stopped, trying to find the right words. "Things happened this time that never happened before. Like remembering my last life, I guess.”
“Last life?” Bucky asked, looking up at her again. Ashley’s chest ached at the curiosity there, mixed in with caution and fear and everything else Ashley wanted to save him from.
“The one where I met you. I explained it all to you once. Do you remember?”
Bucky nodded once, then he reached out his hands and placed them underneath hers, slowly enough that Ashley could pull away if she wanted, but she didn’t. His hands hovered below hers, and Ashley fought the urge to lower her own so they would touch. “It’s cold.”
She nodded. “It’s okay. I won’t hurt you.”
In an instant, Bucky jerked his hands back and let them fall at his sides. Ashley released her hold on her power, letting the rest of it filter out into the universe, dissipating harmlessly. She knew then that it was gone, but she didn’t care in the slightest. Not then. “Bucky?”
His chest heaved, and Ashley took a step forward, saying his name again, quietly but full of concern. He looked up at her, and Ashley saw the panic marring his face.
She had no idea what to do, just moved away to give him space, desperately wanting to do the right thing even with no clue as to what it was. As the seconds passed, Ashley watched Bucky slowly piece himself back together.
“You’re okay,” Ashley said gently, though this was more of a question than anything. She’d be lying if she said she wasn’t scared, watching Bucky panic and being unable to help.
Ruefully she realized this was probably how he’d felt when she’d nearly died all those years ago. It was how she felt when he'd nearly died, too. Helplessness didn’t suit either of them, Ashley thought.
Once he recovered, Bucky moved toward the window, and Ashley realized that he was leaving. “Bucky, wait,” Ashley said, the loudest her voice had been throughout their whole conversation. He turned to her, his face drained of expression and blood. “I’m here if you need me,” she said, lamely, grasping at straws like they would save him.
And for the second time in two days, he disappeared on her.
Some hours later, when dawn was just starting to crawl its way out from under the earth and begin its long trek through the sky, Ashley woke up to find herself impressed at sheer number of ways in which Bucky had managed to entangle his limbs with hers.
It truly was an impressive feat. He had even gotten his leg hooked in Ashley’s somehow. Not just wrapped around or touching, but legitimately trapped her leg against his. Ashley almost felt bad for her attempts to undo it, but he was like a space heater, and Ashley’s body ran on cold, so moving was a necessary evil, as much as she wanted to stay.
The first attempt at detanglement was also the last, because as soon as Ashley tried to slowly remove her arm from its place pinned under Bucky’s chest, his eyes opened, finding hers at an impressive rate for how clearly groggy he was. “Morning,” he said to her with a sleepy grin. Ashley could have kissed him for it, then realized that –in fact– she could, so she pressed a kiss to Bucky’s smile. His breath, Ashley realized too late, was sour, and she scrunched up her nose at the taste.
Bucky laughed at her, staring at her crumpled nose. “Sorry, doll. I didn’t realize you were going to attack me before I could find mouthwash.”
Her eyes lit up at the accusation, and despite the body heat, she found herself gravitating back toward Bucky. “Attack you? Please. I’m not the one who can’t keep his tongue under wraps. One that currently, by the way, tastes like vinegar.”
“Vinegar?” Bucky asked, feigning offense. Without warning, he pushed himself to his knees so he was hovering over Ashley, then pressed obnoxiously wet kisses anywhere that he could find purchase.
“Bucky, gah, no, gross,” Ashley said, half-heartedly pushing him away as she laughed despite herself, using any free moment to rub the saliva off her face as she did so. “You’re a child,” she whined when he finally stopped and rolled back down beside her on the bed.
“You love it,” he said as he reached a hand out for her cheek, rubbing away some of his mess away with his thumb. She slapped his hand away.
“Immature, impossible child,” she said firmly, but there was a smile etched into the corners of her mouth.
Bucky smiled toothlessly, making him look the part Ashley had assigned to him with obviously purpose. “So what are you doing today?”
Ashley narrowed her eyes at the sudden change in topic, suddenly tense and ready for any form of sneak attack. “Work at the lab. I’ve gotten kind of behind with all my moping over my brother’s unfortunate demise.”
“Ash…” Bucky started, but Ashley shook her head to cut him off.
“It’s fine. Once I got over the existential crisis, mourning my brother became that much easier,” Ashley said brightly, smiling blandly and surprised to find that she really did feel fine. Vaguely fine. On the road to being fine.
Bucky seemed unconvinced, but he let the subject drop. “Do you have to go to work?”
“I mean, ‘have to’ is a strong phrase. Howard won’t make me do anything. But this is a war, and I am getting paid to be here, so kind of, I guess?” She made the statement a question, well aware at the dramatics she was playing up.
“Or you could stay?” Bucky said, taking the same obnoxious inflection that she had. His version was cuter, though, Ashley decided.
Ashley sighed heavily. “And do what?”
Naturally, Bucky took the opening to give her a coy look, raising an eyebrow while he narrowed his eyes, clearly going for smoldering and/or dashing. Ashley just laughed at him.
“You’re ridiculous,” Ashley said as she began to roll out of the bed, looking around for her clean clothes. She felt a hand wrap around her arm, tugging her back.
“Don’t leave me,” Bucky said dejectedly. Ashley looked back at him in exasperation, and he gave her his finest puppy dog eyes. “Please?”
Ashley rolled her eyes even as she also rolled back onto the bed. “For the love of everything,” she muttered as she took Bucky in her arms. He nuzzled his face into the crook of her neck as she held him against her. “Are you just going to make me hold you here the entire day?”
He mumbled something against her neck, and she refused to acknowledge that it felt good as all hell. “I can’t understand what you’re saying.”
“I said ‘Would that be such a bad thing?’” he said, lifting his head just enough to make his voice intelligible, his breath tickling against her skin.
“Technically, not the worst way to spend my time. It definitely ranks below being set on fire and rolling around in a pile of nails,” Ashley said.
“That insult was uninspired,” Bucky said, lacing his arms around her shoulders, letting them rest on her like a freshly-pressed ascot, warm and obvious.
Ashley shrugged, which shifted Bucky’s arms to a more comfortable position. “Why would I waste my good insults on you? You’re already wrapped around my finger,” she said, leaning into his warmth, giving up on maintaining her homeostasis.
“Actually, I think you’ll find that I’m wrapped around your neck,” he said, squeezing her briefly. Ashley fought another eye roll.
“Look, much as I love the banter, I do have things to do, people to see,” Ashley said, though she made no attempts to do these things aside from verbal acknowledgement.
“Do something with me. See me,” Bucky said, returning his head to its lovely position in the crook of her neck.
Ashley decided it was probably more time-consuming to continue arguing with him, so she indulged him. “And what would you propose instead?”
Bucky let his fingers run down from the side of her chest down to the lowest it could reach, tracing their route in the most creative way possible, parkour on her skin. Much as she resisted reaction, Ashley finally squirmed under his touch once he reached the start of her thigh. “We do that,” she said, her breath hitching at the memories. “And I’ll never get out of this bed.”
“Fine,” Bucky said like a teenager agreeing to do their homework, vaguely disappointed but knowingly in the wrong. “We’ll do something else, then.”
Bucky shrugged against her, curling into her, exuding warmth. He pointed lazily toward her nightstand, where she had some of her more recent reads stacked for easy access on the nights she couldn’t sleep. “What are those?”
“Those are books, a rare form of entertainment typically found among the intellectual elite, consisting of bound paper printed with words arranged in such an order as to convey some sort of information-“ She saw Bucky scowling at her out of the corner of her eye, and Ashley reached over, a difficult feat since she to some extent had to take Bucky with her, and lifted the first few books off the stack and fanned them out in front of her so that Bucky could take them from her and read the titles.
“Pride and Prejudice? Really?” Bucky asked, removing his head from her neck to stare at her with some level of reproach.
“I will stand by Jane Austen until the day I die,” Ashley said, smiling at herself.
Bucky put the book down, a very subtle rejection that Ashley responded to by tapping her arm into his side, lightly enough to not actually hurt, but he got the point. “Brave New World,” he read skeptically.
“Brilliant book, but not exactly the tone we’re going for,” Ashley said, plucking the book out of his hand, setting it gently back on the nightstand.
“What, are we going to read a book now?” Bucky asked, making some sort of face that crossed between incredulity and distaste. It was also adorable, and Ashley refused to say so. Instead, she said, “Why not?”
Bucky considered this for a moment before saying, in mock bravado, “The Great Gatsby. Isn’t this written by that rich guy with the crazy wife?”
“Sweetheart, you’re gonna have to be more specific,” Ashley said, taking the book from him with no small amount of reverence. “But, essentially, yes. He’s brilliant. Have you read it?”
He shrugged. “Maybe part of it. I don’t remember. Isn’t it the one with the eyes?”
Ashley smiled softly, though it wasn’t entirely meant for Bucky. “The eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg,” she murmured dreamily, then turned so her nose brushed against Bucky’s cheek. “We’re reading it.”
Bucky stared at her. “Really?”
“Is this or is this not what you wanted?” Ashley said, but the answer didn’t really matter, because she was already urging Bucky to lean back against the bed so that she could burrow herself into his shoulder, propping the book open between them, flipping through to the first page. Before she started reading, Ashley kissed the top of his head. “I really love this book, you know.”
With his free hand, Bucky reached over and gently lifted Ashley’s face down toward his and kissed her, letting his hand linger on her cheek for a long moment after. “I know."
She started reading, her voice soft, like she was whispering secrets into his ear, telling him the forbidden story of Jay Gatsby, a true dreamer, a man full of hope, while the world around them strained to listen. Hours passed, and Bucky listened only to Ashley’s voice and the occasional soft scrape of the turning page. His eyes closed, but only to lose himself in her voice, taking in every word.
“Bucky,” Ashley said quietly, breaking the spell.
“Yeah?” he said into her shoulder, his eyes flicking open to see her looking up at him in earnest.
“Are you asleep?” she asked, and Bucky could see this meant the world to her.
“Not even a little,” he said, brushing some of the hair he’d displaced back behind her ear.
“Will you read the last chapter?” she asked, and Bucky thought she almost looked small, like this was the first time she’d let herself look fragile. She wasn’t, he knew, but he smiled softly as he took the book from her, clearing his throat before beginning the last stretch of the tale. As he read, Bucky felt Ashley wrap her arms tighter around him, pressing her body closer to his own. His heart wanted to burst, but he kept reading, trying not to be distracted by her light movements that made his chest tight as a spring.
Before he was ready, Bucky had reached the end, and before he read the last page, Bucky looked up at Ashley and saw her even breathing and her closed eyes. He kissed her shoulder, unable to resist, trying to stay otherwise still as he read. “So we beat on,” he said finally, voice a reverent whisper, “Boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
Closing the book, Bucky set it beside him on the bed, not wanting to move and disturb Ashley’s sleep. But he also hadn’t left the bed for hours, and it was then that he realized that he was dying of thirst, hunger, and a lack of access to a bathroom. Still, he didn’t move to leave, just stroked Ashley’s hair. “Ash?” he said quietly. When she didn’t respond, he said, “Ash, I love you so much.” This time, Ashley stirred underneath him, turning slightly in her sleep. He waited a few minutes, as long as he could, but much to his chagrin, there was only so much he could do.
“Doll, I love you, but I really gotta get up.” At this point, Bucky was speaking at almost full volume, and he winced as Ashley opened one eye, grimacing against the daylight.
“What a romantic,” Ashley murmured tiredly, shifting over in her sleepy state, just enough so that Bucky could free himself. He stood up quickly, instantly lightheaded from the shift to vertical.
“I’ll be back,” he promised, trying to make his clothes look halfway presentable. It was a failed attempt, they were more wrinkles than fabric. Ashley, now sitting up and sufficiently alert, laughed at him.
“Don’t bother. We’re both definitely late for whatever we were supposed to be doing with our lives,” Ashley said, slipping into her own set of clean clothes, worlds ahead of Bucky in current presentation, if only by the merit of actually having fresh things to wear.
Bucky pouted. “Come on, I stalled you this long. Don’t fault me for my humanity,” Bucky said at the precise moment his stomach caved in on itself and rumbled loudly. “Traitor,” he muttered at his chest.
Ashley walked over to him, pursed lips and narrowed eyes, but something panged in her chest at his words, and suddenly her desire for him to leave became genuine. “Go on, soldier. You have work to do.”
He played coy, questioned the word ‘soldier.’ “Is that all I am to you?” Bucky asked, smiling, but it was a real question and Ashley knew it. She aimed for flippancy and started pushing him out the door, hands against his back as she actually had to put in a bit of effort to jump-start his exit. “Of course not. You’re also a colleague,” she said, and Bucky frowned at her.
“Do ‘colleagues’ typically do things like-" he started to incriminate them both until Ashley pulled open the entrance of her tent, and he stopped and smiled at her, although admittedly his need to leave was becoming more apparent for many reasons, not the least of which was relief in the form of the latrines too many meters away.
“Ash, I’ll see you soon,” he said finally, oddly formal, and Ashley hated it. She hated it so much that she quickly stood on her tip toes and pecked his cheek.
“See that you do,” she said with a smile before watching him head off the opposite direction, her heart swirling with conflict but also soaring from every hour that had come before then.
Ashley had half expected to see Bucky again that night, but since she’d been out of it, Howard had a legitimate mountain of work that he needed her help with, and Ashley spent hours into her night trying to make up the deficit. She later learned that Bucky had found himself in a similar situation, though only through the grapevine of Steve visiting a couple of days later to ask Howard about hardware for an emergency mission the Commandos were embarking on, something about a shipment of supplies for Zola. Ashley wasn’t going, the Tesseract wouldn’t be there anyways, and she had work to do, so instead she wished Steve the best of luck and went back to her paperwork.
It wasn’t until Howard asked about ‘Sergeant Barnes’ that Ashley realized that she’d been avoiding him, locking herself in the lab to do paperwork that, while important, wasn’t as time-sensitive as she pretended. “You okay, Ash?” Howard asked her. “You know you can take a break.”
He meant it, which was sweet, but Ashley wasn’t sure what else to do with herself. The Commandos had already left, Bucky with them, and so there wasn’t anything she could do about her own stupidity until they returned. Well, Ashley realized, except vent to a friend.
Ashley found herself wrapping her arm in Howard’s and asking him out for a drink. She didn’t listen to hear if he accepted, knowing with certainty that he would, instead dragging him along toward the saloon with no remorse.
Once Howard had a few drinks in him, Ashley started to tell him everything. Not everything as in her relationship with Bucky, but everything as in the actual lore of Morgan Le Fae and her brother and the fact that Bucky somehow managed to be involved in her life despite all the weird magic drama bullshit. Howard listened with surprising intent for someone with a good bit of scotch in him, and Ashley started to remember why she liked being friends with him in the first place. She ended her monologue with the phrase, “So what do you think?”
Howard’s immediate reply: “Have you told him yet?”
“Told him about the whole ‘Queen of the Fae’ thing? Yeah, of course.”
Howard smiled, but his eyes were narrowed. “Have you told Barnes that you love him?”
Ashley wasn’t stupid. She knew what he meant the first time. Lord knew she'd been circling the topic for the past hour. What she didn’t know was how to explain why exactly the answer to that question was ‘no.’ But she didn’t even need to articulate this for Howard to catch her drift.
“Look, Ash, this whole magic thing is kind of a shock. I’m more of a science guy myself,” Howard said, and Ashley appreciated the attempt to keep the mood light, even if the attempt was a stiff and awkward one. “But I’m also not the one who apparently has to die over and over again. More importantly, I’m not the one who has to leave people behind.”
He’d hit the mark, they both knew it. Ashley swallowed whatever sound was trying to claw its way up her throat.
“But, Ash, the kid loves you, you can see that from a mile away. And he knows what that means, you told him as much.” Howard sighed. “I’m not going to tell you to take the leap. You’re your own person, Ash. But the way I see it, if you love him, too, there’s no reason trying to punish both of you just because you’re afraid.”
Ashley considered this, then smiled. “You know, Howard, for someone with as famed a reputation as yours, you actually have some pretty good advice stored up in that brain of yours.”
“If you’re referring to my reputation as an eligible bachelor—”
“Eligible bastard, more like,” Ashley interrupted with an easy grin.
“—then perhaps you should remember that there is more than meets the eye when it comes to the likes of me,” he said with a wink. Ashley couldn’t suppress an eyeroll, so she didn’t bother to try. This led to an unnecessarily long tangent involving a heated discussion on Howard’s public label as a playboy, one which somehow gathered the attention of other patrons in the bar before Ashley determined that either the conversation needed to end or their friendship would.
The pair left the bar laughing before going their separate ways, leaving Ashley to considered the rather sound advice Howard had left her with before the ridiculousness ensued.
Knowing that the Commandos were expected to return in the next day or so, Ashley resolved that Howard, for all his faults, had been right. She couldn’t keep running. She’d told Bucky that before, but this time, she meant it with everything she had.
A couple days later, she received word that the team had crossed back over into Allied territory. They were expected within the next few hours. Ashley waited in nervous excitement, trying her best to focus on lab work.
She did, actually, focus on lab work, to the point where she got all of it done in what Ashley deemed the result of nervous energy needing a decent outlet. In any case, when she heard the commotion that meant the return of the team, Ashley couldn’t be faulted in abandoning her station to greet them, preparing herself for an admission long in the waiting.
When she arrived to see the team short one crucial member, she was at first confused, but her heart slowly laced itself in a coat of dread. It wasn’t until she saw Steve’s face, hardened and tragic, that her stomach started to fall. And it wasn’t until he met her eyes, when she could see fully the absolute hurt that filled them, that she fell too.
Ashley jolted forward in the bed, gripping the sheets in her fists as though she could strangle them, tears streaming in thick lines down her face as she choked back sobs. Her face was hot and her vision swam, but in the dark and blurriness, Ashley could still feel the set of eyes watching her.
Reaching for her nightstand, Ashley considered the merits of arming herself with the knives in the drawer, but when the figure didn’t move, she had a suspicion of who it was. The window opened further than the crack she’d left it at seemed to confirm her theory, and Ashley abandoned her previous line of thought, instead tasking her hands with the job of wiping her face dry.
“You were screaming,” Bucky said.
“I was crying,” Ashley said, sniffing her nose, staring him down.
“That, too,” Bucky said, though there was no humor behind it. “Are you okay?”
Ashley swallowed. “Have you been watching me?” she said as she turned on the light, gently lifting the switch so the room was bright enough for her to make out his face, which, though still obscured by matted hair and blackened eyes, was still obviously his.
“Yes,” he said, without inflection. “Are you okay?”
“It was just a nightmare, Bucky. I’m fine,” Ashley said, somewhat dismissive despite the contents of said nightmare. Bucky stared at her, tilted his head.
“Why do you have nightmares?” he asked. Ashley wanted to be offended, but the question was so innocuous, so earnest, that she just couldn’t. Also, she realized, she was too exhausted to bother with anger right then.
“A few years ago, there was the Battle of New York, the invasion, everything… A lot of people died. Someone I was close to nearly died. And I almost did, too. And aliens tried to destroy an entire city, I found out that aliens were a thing, Norse gods were a thing, and on top of that I was blasted with an energy source that at the time I thought was going to kill me. I’ve been having nightmares ever since,” Ashley said, technically truthful.
“Steve was there, too,” Bucky said, though Ashley took it as a question.
“That’s how I met him. The second time, anyways. Before the invasion, Shield brought us in to try and stop it. Steve, me, and other people they thought could put an end to the whole thing before it started. We didn’t, though. But we won the battle, against all odds,” Ashley said with a weak smile. “So, yeah, nightmares.”
“What was it really about?” Bucky asked, and the clarity of the question startled her. Ashley didn’t respond for a few moments.
“You,” she admitted after a while. “The last time I saw you. In 1944, anyways.”
She was met with silence, which would have been frustrating if she didn’t understand it. “I read to you, do you remember?”
Bucky just seemed to watch her more intently, saying nothing.
“It was The Great Gatsby. One of my favorite books back then. Still is, actually,” Ashley said.
“‘The eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg,’” Bucky said under his breath. Ashley just barely caught it, and only because she knew what to listen for.
“Yes,” she said, trying not to smile. “I love that book so much. I loved it even more then. Do you remember reading it to me?”
Bucky considered this for a moment, his face turning hard. “No.”
Ashley nodded and moved on. “My brother bought it from a bookstore right after it came out. He saved up his money to get it for me, just because I thought the cover was pretty. We would read it whenever we could, and sometimes I’d steal it from under his mattress just to read ahead. Read it at least a dozen times before I was old enough to understand what it meant. I just remember thinking the words were so old and beautiful.”
“Beautiful,” Bucky repeated, though what he found significant about the word, Ashley wasn’t entirely sure.
“I never told you I loved you,” Ashley said carefully, trying to make it clear this was a statement of fact and not a lead-in to a confession. She wasn’t sure how that sort of thing would go over. "Back then, I mean."
“Why?” he asked as though it was simple. Ashley wondered if maybe it was.
“You died before I could work up the nerve,” Ashley said, then took a breath and explained, “I didn’t want to lose you like I lost my brother. Not exactly a stellar plan, but that was my rationale.”
He said nothing, just watched her carefully, perhaps waiting for more.
“Bucky, why are you here?” Ashley asked gently, as though the very question would cause him to run. It didn’t, but Ashley was sure that he shifted his weight uncomfortably in response. He didn’t speak for a few moments. When he did, his voice was glazed over with something Ashley couldn’t quite place.
“The security is weak.”
Ashley narrowed her eyes. “I can take care of myself.” She reminded herself that this was not Steve or Tony or anyone else who chose to ignore this fact and backed off from the defensive long enough to recognize that the statement was only a half-truth, not a patronizing one.
“I know,” Bucky said, confirming her new suspicion.
“So why are you really here?” she asked, not as gently as she could have.
Bucky watched this shift in her approach with an odd look in his eye. “I’m leaving,” he said. “I wanted to make sure you would be okay.”
She frowned. “I don’t need a protector.”
To Ashley’s disbelief, Bucky walked over to the side of her bed, letting the light wash over him, and she suddenly saw that his body was littered with healing wounds, his face and hands marked with thin, scabbing cuts. She fought the urge to reach out and touch them as Bucky pulled something out of his pocket and held it out to her.
Ashley took the paper in her hand. It was soft and slightly damp, and that was when she realized it was raining outside, a steady trickling from the sky.
“I know you don’t,” Bucky said, staring at Ashley’s fingers hovering so close to his own, the smallest of smiles brushing across his face. He let go of his end, but the paper didn’t move for a few moments before Ashley let her hand fall back to her side. “Goodbye, Ash.”
He turned to leave, transaction complete, but Ashley impulsively reached her hand out and grabbed for Bucky’s, catching it swiftly, shocked at the cool touch of the metal on her skin. “Bucky, wait,” she said in little more than a whisper.
Bucky stood frozen for a long while, but Ashley did not let go, closing her eyes as she held his hand, trying not to break at the thought of how he got it, how what she remembered as being so warm it drove her crazy was now cold, hard metal that refused to react to her touch. It hurt, but she stood her ground. “Doll, you gotta let me go,” he said finally, still not looking back at her.
He squeezed her hand gently, the metal pressing itself just slightly into the surface of her skin, before letting her hand fall limply out of his grip.
Ashley watched Steve Rogers hold himself together with the same sort of strength and sinew that Ashley pretended to currently have. Her eyes were useless, puffy, and red-rimmed from tears she refused to enable any longer. Steve took a sip of scotch, then turned to his friend. “I can’t believe he’s really gone.”
It took a good bit of willpower not to laugh at such a boring, overused statement as that. She managed to downgrade her potential laughter to a rueful smile. “I’m so tired of losing,” she said, rolling her eyes at her own sentiment.
“We’re not losing, Ash,” Steve said, taking another sip.
“Steve, you can’t even get drunk. You’re just wasting booze,” Ashley snapped. Steve looked at her like she’d murdered his puppy. “Sorry,” she muttered.
They were silent for a bit before Ashley said, “My father made me believe that I had no choice in my life. That no matter what I did, things would happen the same way, over and over again, all in the name of making the world a better place.” Ashley snorted. “But the world’s still as shitty as it ever was. And I hate the idea that I have to keep losing the things I care about just because of some cube that meant that my brother and I were the key to saving the universe.” She sighed. “Not to sound selfish or anything.”
Steve smiled into his cup, a half-smile that was only half-forced. Progress. "Some cube,” he murmured, then looked up at Ashley and said, “You don’t sound selfish. Just crazy.”
Ashley shrugged. “You’re not wrong.”
“There was this one time,” Steve began, then trailed off and started again. “I’ve known Bucky since we were kids. And when we were kids, I used to get into all sorts of trouble.” Ashley met his eyes with a wry look, and Steve said, softly, “Yeah, okay, so that hasn’t changed. But when we were kids, I was also a lot smaller.” Ashley nodded an acceptance of this fact. “Every time I got into some kind of fight, Bucky was always there to pull me out. He would ask me why I didn’t just run, leave well enough alone. And my answer was always the same: I couldn’t. And he knew that. Hated it, but he knew.”
“What’s your point, Steve?”
“Look, whatever you decide to do, Bucky would have understood,” Steve said. “And so will I.”
She mulled over this statement while Steve finished off his drink. Her fingers tapped against the table as she considered and wondered what exactly she had left to lose. “I’m gonna destroy the Tesseract or die trying,” Ashley said finally, still staring at her shifting fingers. Steve looked up at her, slightly startled.
“How are you going to-?”
Ashley raised an eyebrow, trying to look determined and infallible. She had no idea if this attempt was successful. “I have no goddamn idea, but if I can’t do it, no one can,” she said, and Steve watched her carefully.
“What happens if you can’t?” he asked.
“Worst case scenario, I do this all over again, just in a different century. But if I can at least get the cube far away from any potential civilization I’ll find myself in, I might be able to sever the connection, avoid this whole 'fate' nonsense. Maybe live a real life, blissfully ignorant of the rest of this nonsense,” Ashley said, and as she rambled her way toward a goal, she also started concocting the barest skeleton of a plan.
“You don’t want to remember?” Steve asked, and Ashley wondered if she offended him. She also realized that in this particular case, she didn’t much care.
“Not even a little,” Ashley said. What she didn’t say, because she didn’t want to be that person, was “Not without him.” The unsaid was left swirling around in her stomach, even as she smiled and said, “Will you help me with that?”
And she pitched her vague semblance of a plan.
Nat had been the one to tell Ashley about the funeral. The text on her phone was an odd sort of shock to her system before Ashley reminded herself that this was all a great big deadly magic act called international espionage. She dressed in all black, which wasn’t a huge change from her usual garb, just replacing comfy combat boots with comfy flats, and found herself standing comfortably in front of an empty grave.
“You know, since I was little I’ve been able to cry on cue,” she said to the open space and the four people standing around her. “Would that help sell the bit?”
To her left, Sam scoffed. “Not if it’s you doing it.”
“Well, I’ve never been good at throwing my voice, but maybe it’s the same principle. You want to try?” Ashley said, and Sam met her eyes, narrowing his own to hide the amusement in them.
“Would you show some respect?” Natasha said, smirking ever-so-slightly. “A man is dead.”
Ashley shrugged. “Lots of people are dead.”
They all sat with that for a minute. Fury cleared his throat, standing in the middle of his own funeral. “I don’t suppose, between all your snarking, that you’ve given any thought to my offer.” He let the question hang for a moment. “Lot of Hydra agents still crawling around out there.”
Steve looked at Ashley, smiled faintly, then said, “Not much of a spy.”
“Wilson? Could use a man with your abilities,” Fury said, turning to the bird man.
Sam nodded toward Steve. “What he said.”
Fury met Ashley’s eyes, and she shrugged. “I’d kill you before any Hydra agents could show up.”
“Not if I got to you first,” Fury said with something like amused resignation, if that ever existed. He looked back up at Steve and held out a hand. They shook, and Fury extended the gesture to Sam. He nodded at Ashley, and she returned the gesture, respectful but aloof. She could live with that. “Anybody asks for me, tell them they can find me right here.” Fury glanced at his gravestone, a dull little thing in a sea of others, and walked away.
“You should be honored,” Nat told the rest of them. “That’s about as close as he gets to saying thank you.”
Steve turned to face her. “Not going with him?”
She wasn’t. Instead, she stepped closer and held out a thick manila folder, one covered in stamps and red ink warning away those without proper clearance, those like Steve, who took it anyways.
He flipped through the pages, well aware that Ashley was looking over his shoulder, watching the Russian letters flip by until he came to a stop on the page with a picture of Bucky paper-clipped to the top of it. He was unconscious, imprisoned, and Ashley hated the sight of it.
“Be careful, Steve. You might not want to go down that road,” Nat said before moving over to Ashley.
Ashley smiled at her. “Don’t suppose you’ll stick around.”
“Tell your dad I said ‘hi,’” Nat said in response, and Ashley pulled her in for a hug.
“Maybe I will,” Ashley said. “You were one of the only sane ones, you know,” she said quietly, then released her friend, who bid them all goodbye one more time before disappearing into the treeline.
Sam nodded toward the file in Steve’s hand. “You’re going after him.”
Steve nodded. “Don’t see how I can’t.” He looked up at his friend. “You don’t have to come with me.”
“Right,” Sam said, meeting Ashley’s eyes. “Let me know when we start.” He walked off toward, presumably, a car that Ashley didn’t realize Sam had. Ashley continued considering this possibility as a way of ignoring the fact that Sam had left the two of them alone to have a conversation, a conversation whose contents Ashley wasn’t quite aware of.
She was cut off from her distraction by Steve holding out the folder to her. Ashley looked up in surprise, staring at Steve, trying to see if he was tricking her or something else that was completely out of his character. He gave her a half smile. “We both know you have as much a right to that as I do.”
Ashley scoffed. “Yeah, which is technically none.” She took the folder, taking in its weight. “Thanks.”
“In the spirit of transparency-“ Ashley cut him off with eyebrows nearly brushing against her hairline. “Yeah, yeah, I know. But in a newfound spirit of transparency -better?- I figured I owed you this much.”
“You owe me a lot much, but yes, the gesture is appreciated,” Ashley said as she skimmed through the file, one that from what she could tell at first glance detailed cryogenesis and various unethical experiments that made Ashley slightly nauseous. She closed the file gently. The paper in her pocket burned. “And in the newfound spirit of transparency required in a genuine friendship such as this one…” She was stalling again, and they both knew it. “I should tell you that Bucky came to my room the other night.”
Steve started at this. “He what?”
Ashley explained as much as she dared about the encounter, leaving only the ending up for interpretation as to its truthfulness. “He told me he was leaving. I think he just wanted to make sure I was okay. And you.”
“Is he alright?” Steve asked.
“I mean, relatively. Kind of a hard situation to label anything as ‘alright,’” Ashley said. “He didn’t try to murder me or anything, so I thought that was a pretty good sign.”
Steve just sighed. “But now he’s gone.”
“Now he’s gone,” Ashley said.
They stood there for a long moment before Steve asked, “Have you talked to Tony at all?”
“I let him know you and I were alive and well. He’s not particularly happy with me right now, though,” Ashley said.
“Thought you were working things out,” Steve said gently.
Ashley chewed on her bottom lip. “They are worked out. Kind of. But I told him I needed space. Time. And he didn’t take it well. He thinks his job is to protect me, and he hasn’t figured out yet that he’s wrong.”
Steve nodded, considering but too polite to pry. “Does that mean you’re coming with us?”
She shook her head. “I care about him, Steve. I know that I do. But I’m also literally a different person than who I was back then. I just got my memories back, I lost my powers. I need answers.”
“Answers like what?” Steve asked. He wasn’t arguing with her, just asking, and Ashley appreciated him for it.
“Like if I can break the cycle this time around,” Ashley said, then smiled. “I’m a tortured soul, remember?”
He let a smile brush across his face. “I remember,” Steve said as he brought her in for a hug. Ashley wrapped her arms around her friend, trying to commit the moment to memory, since she had a feeling they wouldn’t see each other for a long time.
“I don’t understand what you’re asking me to do,” Howard said, absolutely understanding what she was asking him to do.
Ashley took a breath. “Look, Howard, I have this theory, right, that the only way I’m connected to the Tesseract is if I'm somehow exposed to its existence.”
“That’s already a pretty major connection, Ash,” Howard said, busying himself with what looked like an important mechanical project, but really it meant nothing to him. They both knew this and acknowledged nothing.
“Hear me out,” she said, though it came out as more of a demand, which Howard only enabled for the second it took for him to meet her eyes before returning to his preoccupation. “If I’m not exposed to the Tesseract or anything about my past, then maybe there’s a chance that I won’t have to relive it. Or know about it.”
“Okay, great. What exactly does this have to do with me?” Howard asked, finally putting down the scrap metal to look at his friend. “Because you sound crazy.”
Ashley glowered at him, but since she was asking him for a massive favor, she let the insult drop. Her mood turned serious. “Howard, if I die, I want you to get rid of me.”
“Corpse disposal isn’t really my forte, Ash,” he said, and though the words were flippant, Ashley saw that he wasn’t feeling light-hearted.
“The records, you have access to them. You’re the only one I trust to do this for me,” she said. Howard shook his head slightly, not meeting her eyes as he mulled over this proposition.
“Ashley, you’re not going to die,” Howard said.
She nodded, though this was purely for his benefit. “But if I do…”
Howard took a breath and nodded. “If you do.”
“You’re a good friend, Howard,” Ashley said, and they left it at that.
Zola, the spineless traitor, gave Steve and Ashley everything they needed for this glorified revenge attack on Schmidt’s final stronghold. As soon as they came within view of it, Ashley could feel the presence of the Tesseract, its hold on her having grown that much stronger since her brother’s death. In the darkness, Ashley balled her hand into a fist and willed a coil of light to form around her arm, as convenient as it was disturbing, and she led the way inside.
Since they were fighting two different kinds of battles, Steve and Ashley came to a fork in the compound, so far undisturbed by agents except the dozen or so they took out on the way in, and they turned to each other. “Good luck,” Steve said.
“See you on the other side.”
They separated, and Ashley took off down a stretch of hallway that ended with half an army of Hydra agents aiming their guns at her. Ashley barely thought before twisting her hands at her side, sending a burst of energy directly at the swarm. The agents went flying in all directions, though mostly backwards, and for a moment Ashley wondered why she thought the whole “Morgan Le Fae” thing was so bad after all. Then she remembered the whole “loss of free will” and “evil sorceress” part and reconsidered while she ran toward the Tesseract.
As soon as she crossed the threshold, Ashley felt the Tesseract’s presence surge, and her vision tinged with blue in time with her veins turning to ice. Schmidt, a bright red sculpture some meters away, smiled, the contrast of white teeth against his skin a grotesque sight. “Have you finally come to claim your destiny, little one?” Schmidt asked, still smiling dramatically.
“I’ve come to take it back,” Ashley said, leaning into the dramatics, and Schmidt’s smile only grew.
He held up a case that pulsed in Ashley’s chest, and she knew the Tesseract was inside. She reached out a hand and found that as she willed its power to her, she felt herself being pulled back. It was like the Tesseract was pulling her toward it, but her body felt no sort of force. Ashley realized with a start that the thing was pulling at her mind, coaxing it toward her with no small amount of success. She stopped calling its power, suddenly out of breath. Schmidt cackled, stepping toward her, case swinging at his side.
“Did you really think you could have this power without paying the price?” he asked her. “The one who would wield the Tesseract must be willing to sacrifice much in order to be worthy of it. You, Morgan, know this to be true.”
“My name is not Morgan,” Ashley breathed out, starting to feel overwhelmed by the cube clawing at her mind, trying to coax her out and into its cold embrace.
Ashley only realized she was on the floor when she saw Schmidt hovering over top of her, holding the case just below her head. Her heart was a sledgehammer against her ribs, and Ashley felt as though she was being ripped apart. She screamed, and blue light ripped its way up her body, blinding her as she felt her mind being invaded by cold, a presence that was familiar but wrong, and Ashley knew her greatest fears had come true.
She was Morgan Le Fae.
Her eyes blinked slowly, and her body moved to a stand, but Ashley had no control over either of these actions. Schmidt smiled at her. “Welcome to the land of the living.”
Ashley’s head tipped forward in a horrid, graceful bow. Her hand reached out, and Schmidt merely smiled and produced from behind his back the sword he’d used to murder Ashley’s brother, a sword that should have stayed in the void it had come from. She felt her lips curl into a smile as the blade slipped into her hand, ungodly cold, heavy with its power.
Fingers -her fingers- ran down the length of the blade, and Ashley tried to fight, to attack. Schmidt was a sword’s length away, and Ashley willed her body to listen to her as she tried to stab the sword toward his heart. Her arms shook, but Ashley produced no actual movement. Still, Ashley could also feel a chill run down her spine at the attempt. Either Morgan was annoyed by Ashley's antics or Ashley was getting somewhere with them, but in any case, she knew she had to try again.
“She really wants to kill you,” Ashley’s voice, to her absolute disgust, purred at Schmidt.
Schmidt’s grin remained stagnant. “I killed her brother.”
Ashley’s face stretched into a smile. “Good. He was a liability.”
There was a brief moment of clarity for Ashley at those words. She realized that Morgan Le Fae was an absolute monster, not just because of her flippancy at the death of her own flesh and blood, but because Ashley felt the sheer pleasure that Morgan found in that death ripple through her, a repulsive bit of happiness that Ashley knew needed to be destroyed.
She did her best to remember the loss, the ache she felt when she remembered that her brother was gone, lost to her as before. Traitor he might have been, ambivalent and frustrating and impossible, but in the end, he'd been her brother. When his blood spilled on the floor of the compound, it had been Ashley's, too. Ashley remembered that feeling, that rage and powerlessness she'd felt when he'd died, and she let it consume her in a way that meant something.
It didn’t take long for the sword in her hand to become heavy with the weight of her own free will with it. The mention of her brother propelled her willpower so far into overdrive that if Ashley hadn’t immediately thought the solution was to plunge the blade into her chest, she could have made Morgan do anything else she wanted, just for that moment.
As it stood, the plunge was enough. Excalibur's blade sliced through her so cleanly that it almost didn't hurt. Almost. The cold, blue power ebbed into nothingness as Ashley’s vision tunneled and her body became heavy as Morgan’s spirit retreated from death while Ashley retreated to the floor.
Schmidt stumbled back from Ashley’s near-corpse, stunned at this kamikaze turn of events. Apparently, he really thought he’d rule the world.
Ashley thought about the promise she’d stolen from Howard, about the part of her that hoped she wouldn’t have to use it. She’d been stupid to think it could end any other way.
The extra time she’d spent distracting Schmidt with her sudden possession by an evil spirit gave Steve Rogers the time he needed to find the carrier that would be carrying the bomb set for America, where though he would supposedly perish in a plane crash, he would do so while saving an entire country from tragedy, and eventually live to tell about it.
Not that Ashley knew this. All she knew was this was the first time in a long time that she felt in control, and as the life drained from her in time with the blood pumping from her heart and onto the floor, she wondered if she’d find this kind of peace in the next life.