[Try explaining a life bundled with episodes of this—
swallowing mud, swallowing glass, the smell of blood
on the first four knuckles.]
One of her clearest memories was her first kill.
She remembered the way the target had breathed out a warm, damp puff of air against her shoulder as she’d slid the needle into a spot concealed by his thick beard. He’d fallen back against the pillows like a marionette whose strings had been cut; she remembered pressing her hands over his mouth to muffle the sound as he choked.
Most of all, she remembered his expression of slack surprise, his dead eyes holding a fading look of doubt, as though he hadn’t quite believed what was happening even as he’d felt his throat constrict from the poison.
“It isn’t likely that particular memory was implanted,” she told the two men sitting across from her. The assurance was mostly for the interrogator’s benefit. The SHIELD psychologist-- an ashen man who twitched when she so much as looked his way-- might have been interested in the idea of false memories, but it was the interrogator who asked the important questions and upon whom she directed her focus. “Some operatives had that type of memory implanted before their first mission.”
“Why?” asked the psychologist.
The handcuffs, long since warmed by contact with her skin, dug into her wrists when she leaned back in her chair; it was a momentary pinch of discomfort compared to the protest her still-healing ribs made at the gesture. She took in a shallow breath, keeping the pain off her face.
“I don’t know. I suppose the Red Room thought it easier to kill the second time than the first,” she said.
She allowed herself a small smile. Strange that a man who worked for SHIELD would ask such a naïve question. The psychologist’s pinky finger twitched. “Killing is usually easy,” she said. “The hard part is afterwards.”
The psychologist’s eyes narrowed; curiosity briefly replaced nervousness. She wondered what he was thinking, if he’d taken her words to mean that she continually laid awake at night tormented by the faces of everyone she killed. (She doesn’t. She can’t. If she did, she’d never sleep again.)
The interrogator shifted in his seat, drawing her attention once more. He looked at her for a long moment. His eyes were a pale hazel and, somewhat surprisingly, held no false kindness or sympathy, only guarded interest. He reminded her a little of Barton’s handler. “You said that your first kill is one of your clearest memories. What are the others?”
She didn’t allow her expression to change, but something in her eyes made sweat break out on the psychologist’s forehead.
“I remember the Winter Soldier.”
The psychologist almost fell off his chair.
Even the interrogator’s blank expression cracked, surprise widening his eyes before interest narrowed them. He didn’t lean forward in his chair, but there was a slight tension in his shoulders that suggested he wanted to do precisely that. When he spoke, he kept his voice low and even. “The Winter Soldier. We’d believed that he was a boogey-man.” At her raised eyebrow he added, “A story the Russians spread to frighten us.”
She almost laughed at that, imagining Western operatives arguing over whether or not the Winter Soldier was real. “The Winter Soldier was no story.”
“What can you tell us about him?”
“What do you want to know about him?” she asked slowly.
She was already regretting her honesty, despite Barton’s earlier plea to make some progress so that he could actually talk to her without bars and shackles getting in the way. Should she barter now, exchanging memories for privileges? She wondered, without bitterness, which memory would allow her to go outside and enjoy the sunlight for the first time in over a week.
“As near as we can tell, if all the stories about him are true, the Winter Soldier is probably the world’s most successful assassin,” the interrogator said, a dry note creeping into his voice. “Our records indicate he worked mostly from the early fifties to just before the Berlin Wall fell, though there have been a few other assassinations in the past decade that people have tried to link to him. We would consider any and all information you have about him as a clear sign of cooperation.” He paused. “And perhaps some gratitude that we had Professor Xavier strip your mind of any triggers.”
She lifted one shoulder in a shrug. It was good to know that there weren’t any triggers lurking in her mind to make her put a bullet in her own head or go on a messy rampage, but she wasn’t about to thank them for it. SHIELD had done it as an act of self-preservation.
“I can tell you what I know of him, but there’s only one detail that I believe important.”
“And what detail is that?” the interrogator asked.
She looked past his shoulder, towards the one-way mirror beyond which Directory Fury was doubtlessly watching the interrogation. When she answered the question, she directed her words to him.
“Dead?” the interrogator and the psychologist said together.
“How do you know he’s dead?” the interrogator said. A hint of disbelief darkened his eyes as he leaned forward. “Our records indicate that if he existed, he is still working, just very rarely.”
She took a moment to answer. Her mouth felt dry, suddenly, her tongue sticking to the roof of her mouth. She didn’t lick her lips or betray any discomfort; instead she pressed her lips together in a tight-lipped smile that made the psychologist do a full-body twitch.
“Your records are wrong.”
“How do you know?” the interrogator asked.
“I’m the one who killed him.”
There was a moment of silence. Then the door to the interrogation room opened.
Fury stepped inside, his expression unreadable as both the psychologist and the interrogator scrambled to their feet and saluted him. He motioned for them to sit, and then nodded towards her. “Why don’t you start at the beginning.” It wasn't a question, but as commands went, it was milder than she’d expected from the director of SHIELD.
She let one corner of her mouth curl upwards. “It may take a while in the telling.” She wouldn’t tell them the whole truth, of course -- there were things that weren’t necessary for them to know, and there were things that she didn’t want them to know -- but she’d tell them enough to get out of her cage.
“I don’t know about you, but I have all the time in the world,” Fury drawled. He clasped his hands behind his back and stared at her with his one good eye, clearly waiting for her to start.
So she did.