you do not have to be good.
you do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
you only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
-mary oliver, wild geese
Я ведаю, что боги превращали
Людей в предметы, не убив сознанья,
Чтоб вечно жили дивные печали.
Ты превращен в мое воспоминанье.
i remember how the gods turned people
into things, not killing their minds.
so now, to keep this unearthly sorrow,
you have turned into my memory of you.
-anna akhmatova, as a white stone
When the worst of it was over, when the smoke had cleared and the blood on the blacktop had been washed away and the last of the bodies had been dredged from the river, the Winter Soldier took up a knife and a change of clothes and three days’ worth of food, and headed slowly but inexorably northwards.
He jumped a train to get to New York, slept fitful in an empty storage carriage with the wind rushing by and the electric rattle of the tracks inspiring awful and inexplicable dreams in him, dreams he would not understand until much later. He went to London. He went to Paris, where everyone looked a little like he felt, a little running-scared and angry. He went to Barcelona, sleepy in the heat, which was where he held onto the edge of a cheap bathroom sink until the porcelain cracked and looked into a smudged mirror and decided that he would be Bucky Barnes after all, yes, the very best Bucky Barnes he could be.
(If you say something is so, then it is. This was what his long winters taught him.)
He went to Madrid, which was, he found, a city of wide plazas and winding avenues. A dog slumbered in the sun in an alley; a girl on a bicycle festooned with flowers, small and pink, bought oranges. He wandered aimless in the Puerta del Sol, a place he had never been, but the sculpture of the bear and the madrone tree there reminded him too much of mushroom clouds, and he found he could not stay. Everywhere he went he felt anonymous; everywhere he went he felt hunted.
He wanted to be Bucky Barnes. He had decided. But who was Bucky Barnes?
The people in Antwerp did not, in the end, have the answer. He sat on a bench by the banks of the Scheldt and watched the ships go by. From there, over months that bled into years, it was Bremerhaven, Gdynia, Saint Petersburg (he flinched at the wide squares and open avenues, all built on bones, and had to leave after only a week), Kotka, Drammen. Warsaw, Brest, Bucharest, Ulaanbaatar, Irkutsk. All places that he knew. All places he had left blood in: not usually his own, but sometimes. Sometimes. In Gdynia a woman gave him coins and chocolates by the bay, a sympathetic smile on her face. She believed him to be suffering. Was he? He did not know. He did not know quite what that felt like. Probably Bucky Barnes would know. Probably Bucky Barnes would be suffering.
He spent a week in Tallinn, which in his head was still Таллин. The dissonance made his head hurt, like someone in another room had left a radio tuned into nothing but static, dizzying. He went to church, which was something he could not ever remember doing but seemed enough like Bucky Barnes to be worth a try. The ceiling was high and the room smelt of incense, of lacquer. Icons considered him silently and he considered them right back. He thought that he killed someone in a church, once. Not very holy. He left still feeling lost; placed two coins in the little box by the door that was meant for alms.
A few weeks out from Easter, after a year on the run, he sat himself down in front of the TV in a shitty hotel room a half-mile out from the railway station in Khabarovsk, and watched a robot try to destroy the planet. This inspired some concern in him: not for the planet, which had weathered much worse things and which, he privately thought, might be better off without any of them anyway, but for the robot. The robot could not be blamed, could it? It was only doing what had been asked of it. The word robot came from robota, which meant slavery. This was a thing he knew, though he could not recall where precisely he had heard it. He understood a little of what it was to be that sort of creature, all twisted-up metal inside and out, and what it meant to break free. On the TV he saw a man he had once been very much in love with decapitate one of these robots, and saw the wires jutting from its body. He thought about the wires jutting from his own body—the ones he knew were there inside—and quietly resolved to keep running for a long while yet.
Time passed, in the way it tended to, and the second summer of his long and self-imposed exile came upon him, and still he was no closer to feeling like a man. By then it was May, the start of what they called the white nights in the far northern reaches. They called it this because it was summer always, the sun never setting, only ever dawn or twilight or day. White nights. But he was chasing winter: his own, maybe.
So he went to Iceland.
In Iceland, which was a strange country, he met a man.
He had not meant to do so. He had gone looking for birds. But that was fate, for you.
Bucky—or, at least, the man calling himself by that name—took a cab from Reykjavík Airport and it was the alien quality of the whole place that hit him first; the twilit loneliness of it in the small and fragile hours in which he arrived. The sky was the colour of seawater, and the seawater was full of swans, at least by the waterfront, like clouds bobbing in the Atlantic. Back-to-front. Everything was grey, and green, and grey again. Rain beat down against the windows of the taxi.
The cab driver saw him looking at the swans in the harbour. "You like the birds?"
"They're okay," said Bucky. But he did like them, really.
"If you like birds," said the cab driver, "you should go see the bird cliffs."
"The bird cliffs?"
"At Latrabjarg," said the cab driver. "They are full of birds this time of year. Full of birds! Puffins, gannets, guillemots. All the birds you could ever want. They come here to breed, you know, every summer. Such high cliffs."
"Oh," said Bucky.
So he went to the bird cliffs, but he did not go for the birds, not at first.
He came up with a tour group in a little white bus, labouring up the hill, and milled around with them for hours while they took photographs, lying on their bellies next to the puffins, shoving cameras in their little faces. A sign near the cliff said that it was very high, and that they should be careful not to fall. The same sign also said that there had been great auks there, once, a hundred years ago or more, and that they were not there any longer. It did not say where they had gone, but everyone looked appropriately solemn at this information and so Bucky did too. There was a church down the hill, and a lighthouse also, but nobody paid those much mind.
When the tourists left they asked Bucky if he wanted to leave too, and he lied and said no; said that he had his own way of getting back to town, which was miles away.
Then he sat on the very edge of the cliff, and lit a cigarette from the pack in his pocket, and stared at the puffins, and tried to summon the courage to throw himself off.
"Are you going to jump?" said a voice from behind him.
Bucky looked around.
It was one of the tourists who had addressed him; a skinny fella in dark and fancy clothing, with stringy black hair like birds' feathers, and a bright green scarf despite the mild weather. A British accent.
"I came to see the birds," Bucky said, eventually.
Bucky saw the man tilt his head out of the corner of his eye. Puffins clambered over the rocks a few metres below them, fat and squawking. "I am sure you did. Tell me: were they so soul-crushingly disappointing as to inspire suicide, or is this unrelated?"
He tapped ashes from the end of his cigarette. "Listen, pal," he said, "can't a fella contemplate offing himself in peace in this country."
"By all means," the man said generously, spreading his arms out in an encompassing gesture. And so he sat down next to Bucky, legs swinging, and watched him like he was a museum curiosity.
"I'm sorry," said the man, "terribly sorry, truly, but I can't help being interested. Why, exactly, do you want to throw yourself off a cliff to your inevitable demise?"
Bucky's expression turned icy. "Scram, mister," was all he said.
"Loveless marriage? Extortion? Black market organ harvesting? Murder?"
At the last one Bucky scowled, and the man leaned back; gave him a knowing look. "Ah."
"Yeah. You got no idea, buddy," Bucky said, and he laughed rueful and short. "I'm a fuckin' animal. They ought 'a put me down."
The man's eyes flashed. "Are you," he said.
With hindsight, Bucky would come to regret that choice of words.
“What I don’t get,” said Sam, “is why the Winter Soldier would go to Iceland. I mean, Iceland? Really?”
Natasha, in the co-pilot’s seat, exchanged a glance with Rhodes. It was dark in the cockpit, save for what little illumination the dashboard lights provided, and she couldn't see his face well: one of the downsides to flying the Quinjet at night, the dull and distant roar of the wind the only hint at any tangible outside world.
“Maybe he…really likes old churches?” Rhodes tried. “Vikings? Glaciers? Honestly, I don’t actually know anything about Iceland. I’m just embarrassing myself here.”
Steve sighed, the noise crackling over their earpieces. “Any intel on HYDRA facilities in the region, Nat?”
“There’s no record of any HYDRA installations here. There was never any Soviet presence to speak of, either.” She looked over her shoulder at him, seated in the back across from Sam. His expression was grim; his jaw set: this chase was in its second year, now, and it had weighed on him more than anyone. It would. “Whatever he’s after, it isn’t HYDRA.”
That triggered a contemplative silence.
“Maybe he wants a holiday,” Wanda said into it. “I want a holiday.”
“Man, don’t we all,” said Sam. “Don’t we all.”
“I wouldn’t worry too much about him, Steve,” Natasha said. “He can take care of himself.”
Steve drew in an unsteady breath. Sam patted him sympathetically on the shoulder.
“Seriously, man—I’m sure he’s doin’ better than us, right now. Dude’s probably got a warm bed and all the disgusting rotten fish in a can he can eat. He’s fine.”
He wasn’t fine.
When Bucky woke in the morning it was slowly. His head felt thick and full of water, full of clouds, like he had drank too much, or been dosed with opiates.
(They used to do that. Give him midazolam, lots of it, in a drip, to keep him quiet and—nonaggressive, while they worked. He’d get violent without it; he remembered them saying that. Even then he was trying to fight it, as soon as he was given a chance. This should have inspired some contentedness in him, the notion that he never stopped fighting, but he didn’t feel much of anything about it, not really.)
He opened his eyes and had to close them again, overwhelmed by sudden dizziness. The world felt strange and muted. It was like all the colour had leached from it. He could not remember the night before. He had wanted--he had wanted to jump from the cliff. Had he? Had he, and it hadn't been tall enough, and now he had washed up half-dead on the shore somewhere? But--no. He remembered telling that creepy tourist to fuck off; remembered hiking back down the hill; remembered deciding not to walk into town but to sleep in the old church, instead. He certainly did not remember dying. He wanted to be sick--no, he was going to be sick--
He lurched to the side and threw up his meager breakfast from yesterday morning.
"Fuck," he said, or tried to say.
It came out as a startled yelp.
There was a decidedly inhuman paw where his right hand was supposed to be: and where the left usually was, there was nothing at all.
“Oh dear,” came a very familiar voice, interrupting Bucky's small personal crisis. “You’re not handling this well at all, are you?”
Bucky staggered to his feet with some difficulty—of which there were three, now, which was the immediate cause for his concern. It was the man from the day before: same dark suit, same grey overcoat, same green scarf. Same walking stick, the one Bucky was sure he didn't need. He curled his lip back, trying to seem more threatening than he felt, hunched over and wet by the old altar.
The man seemed unaffected. “Oh, don’t make that face at me, really. This is what you wanted. You make a very handsome dog, anyway.”
Bucky snarled. It took him a moment to realize that the low and terrible rumbling he heard was coming from his own throat. This was upsetting, for obvious reasons, and he fell silent.
It didn't seem to have the desired effect, anyway: or any effect at all, really. The man instead began to inspect the building, touching the ancient beams and running a finger along the windowpane like he was searching for dust, for signs of lack of care.
“Do you know how new the churches are, here?" he said, conversational, as if he wasn't talking to a dog. "Your god came late to this land. They built his altars and houses of worship over our temples, over the places where blood was spilled for us. Other things come and go: but we, we are the wind, the birds, the stones. We are part of this land, and always will be. We will remain here. And so will you, unless you can find a way to break my little curse.”
Bucky’s ears twitched, startled. Pieces fell into place like stones.
“Curse, yes,” said the man he knew now to be Loki lightly, peering up at the ceiling; at the delicate carvings there. “I do not often deal in curses. There are so many better ways to teach a lesson. But this one suits you, don’t you think?”
“After all. You told me yourself: you are an animal. You appear to have lost your humanity, as you put it,” Loki continued, and cut him the sort of look, full of pleasure and promise, that people cowered from. “I suppose you will have to find it again.”
Bucky made a promise many months ago to never cower again. He moved unsteadily but with purpose, the fur along his spine all standing up in Pleistocene warning, and showed every single one of his teeth. The familiar savagery of the kill came over him. He gathered all of his weight and sprang.
His teeth, which were new and strong and sharp, closed over empty air where flesh had been a moment ago, and he hit the ground hard, laughter echoing in his ears.
Above him the rafters began to shake.
"I hate Iceland," Sam said, leafing through a tourist brochure.
"So you've said," Natasha answered, wry.
Sam put the brochure back in its stand with a sigh. "I'm saying it again. There's nothing here, man."
"I don't know," Natasha said. They were in a bookshop in Stykkisholmur, ostensibly to ask after the whereabouts of the Winter Soldier. Really, they were mostly just browsing. "The glaciers are pretty nice."
"You know what I mean."
She did, and how: they'd been on the Soldier's trail for a year now, and Steve and Sam for two, with no sign of getting any closer. Every trail they found was cold, and this was the coldest yet. Two weeks ago, he'd been here, she estimated, and left for God-knew-where. He could have been in Brazil by now, for all they knew.
"Sometimes things happen, you know," Sam said, picking up a copy of Derrida like it was an unwelcome pest. "Sometimes things happen, and you can't do anything about them, and you just have to give it up. You just gotta rest. Do some Sudoku. Wait a while. See what happens. You know?"
"Good luck telling that to Steve," Natasha said.
"Maybe I wasn't talking about Steve," Sam told her, very gently.
So that was how it was. It was late spring, and they were in Iceland chasing a ghost, and Natasha very much and very secretly was not coping.
She was a woman well-used to loss. Loss was an old friend; as much a part of her as a limb. Loss was a thing she could deal with, and war also. But love was something different: something new and tentative and painful, a symptom of a new disease, a part of a new Natasha, and rejection weighed heavy and bitter on her. She'd thrown herself into the work to cover it up, like concealer over a yellowing bruise. She'd moved across the country: to San Francisco, by the sea, where she could keep pot-plants and orchids, and where less people knew her. She'd bought a cat. She'd changed her clothes and her hair and her smile. That would be enough to fool a stranger, someone who knew her only from photographs and reputation. It was not, as it turned out, enough to fool a friend.
God, how she hated that.
"I don't know what you mean, Sam," Natasha said.
"Bullshit," said Sam.
"Don't do this," she said, very abruptly, and turned to leave.
A woman rushed over to them as they left, Natasha stone-faced and Sam following behind, concerned. She was bundled up despite the weather, beanie pulled so low over her head and scarf pulled up so high that it was difficult to make out her face at all. “Wait, wait,” she cried, in heavily-accented English. “You are—the Avengers?”
Sam smiled, a little shakily; Natasha made herself busy. It wasn’t unusual these days to have strangers approach them, looking for autographs or selfies or just sometimes to touch, to see that they were in fact real. That didn’t mean any of them had to like it. “That’s right, ma’am,” Sam said. "Two of 'em, anyway. Lemme guess--you want a selfie? I am down with selfies. Let's do this."
The woman blinked. “No, no,” she said when she realized, waving her hands. “I don’t want—selfies. I do not have my phone. No, I am here to ask for—for a favour. It is the dog. The dog at Latrabjarg."
Sam and Natasha exchanged a glance.
“I’m sorry, ma’am, I don’t know if I heard you right,” said Sam. “The dog at--where now?"
Sam considered the splintered wreckage in front of them, arms crossed over his chest. “I feel like I’ve just been asked to get a little girl’s cat out of a tree, man. This is it. We’ve made it. This is real superhero stuff.” He looked at Rhodes. "I'm a real superhero."
"I'm so happy for you," said Rhodes.
"You said it's still alive?" Steve asked. He was speaking with the woman from earlier. A crowd had gathered.
The woman nodded. "We hear it cry at night. For days, it has been crying. Just howls and howls. It must have been in the church when it collapsed."
“Probably pretty badly injured,” Steve said, and looked at Natasha. “That's a lot of wood on top of it. But if it's crying, it might be okay."
"Might be," Natasha said. "And if it isn’t, well. We can deal with that. Think you can lift those beams, Captain America?"
As soon as they started to shift the remains of the roof the dog made its presence known. It screamed like a wild thing, and Natasha had no idea if it was because it longing to be free, or because it was longing to get away from them. It did not sound at all like a small dog. It sounded nuts, if she was being honest. Natasha kept her hand on her sidearm, just in case, as Steve, red-faced and panting, dragged the final massive beam free, and the light of the torch in her other hand shone upon their quarry.
It was big. That was her first thought. It was big, bigger than she expected, and inky as the shadows it limped out of, lip curled back to show a white flash of fangs. It cowered, surrounded on three sides by wreckage and on the fourth by them, its ears pressed back. Pale frightened eyes looked frantically between the two of them. Searching for a way out.
"Jeez," said Sam, standing a ways behind them with a net gun. "He looks friendly."
"He looks terrified," said Natasha, quieter.
"He's limping, man," Sam pointed out. "Probably not feelin' too hot right now."
"Yeah, 'course he's limping," Steve said then, all of a sudden. "Look, Nat. He's missing a leg."
There was a pause.
"Oh, shit," said Sam. "Did we do that?"
Natasha rolled her eyes. "I think he'd be making more of a fuss if we just tore his leg off, honestly, boys. Give me that net gun."
She lifted it to her shoulder and fired just as the dog turned to run.
The three of them looked down at it warily, writhing in the netting. It was male, after all, and unneutered, from the look of it. No collar, no tag. A uniform solid black, from the tip of its nose to the end of its tail, and trying very determinedly to bite their legs off at the ankles.
"If this guy's someone's pet," Sam said, "I got a cousin who breeds cocker spaniels I ought 'a recommend to them. What is this, Cujo's long-lost twin?"
Steve, who very plainly had not seen that movie, raised an eyebrow. "Well," he said. "I don't suppose we have anything we can use for a muzzle, do we?"
Natasha sighed and went to get the first aid kit from the Quinjet.
“So,” Sam said triumphantly, grinning at the assembled crowd. Finally, finally, the dog was safely restrained in front of them; a growling dark heap muzzled with a strip of gauze and huddled in a crate one of the locals had brought along for that purpose. “Who does he belong to?”
They looked at one another: sheep farmers, sailors, poets, experimental artists, all in heavy clothes with the sort of sweaters Natasha was fast coming to consider uniquely Icelandic. Eventually a blond, heavy-set man with silver in his beard spoke up. “He, uh, he does not belong to anyone.”
“I have never seen him before,” said a woman. “The cats, when they come by, I give them some scraps of fish and some water. But this one--he is just a stray.”
Natasha had a sudden sinking feeling in her stomach.
“You are the Avengers,” said someone else, unnecessarily.
The meaning was clear: you’re the superheroes; you figure it out.
Steve just stared, for a moment. Then he sighed, cracked a rueful grin, and said, “Well, I guess we’ve got our own team mascot.”
“We’re not keeping it,” said Rhodes, once they had all piled back into the Quinjet. The dog glared at them, looking distinctly betrayed from its place at the end of the bench. It had pawed off the muzzle almost right away, once it was safely caged, and stared at them now from behind the bars in a feral sort of way, blue eyes bright.
“We’re not keeping it,” Rhodes said again into the silence. “Tell me we’re not keeping it.”
“Of course not,” Steve said, and frowned when Natasha glared at him. “What? He could be—rabid, Nat. Do we look like the sorta people who are stable enough to have dogs? I don’t even have an apartment, anymore.”
“Rabid,” Natasha said, voice dripping with derision.
“Okay,” Steve conceded. “Maybe not rabid. But he doesn’t look friendly, either.”
“They’ve got people for this sorta stuff, you know,” said Sam. “Rescues for dangerous dogs. We can call Pepper once we’re back in the country; I guarantee she’ll know a place.” At Natasha’s disbelieving look he added, “I’m sorry, man. But this isn’t our field of expertise, and you know it. You can’t trust him. He’s obviously got issues. There are people—people who aren’t us—who can take care of them better.”
“Is that what you thought when you saw her?” Natasha said, jerking her chin in Wanda’s direction, who was sitting closest to the dog and watching it quietly.
Steve sighed. “Natasha—”
And then, knowing it was cruel before she even said it, Natasha interrupted him to add, “Or when you saw Barnes? You didn’t think he’d be better off in a prison cell, did you?”
Steve looked abruptly pained, like she’d cut him open with a knife.
“I’m taking the dog,” she said into the silence, and her tone brooked no argument.
The jet sped on, across the darkened ocean, kicking up spray in its wake.
The first thing Natasha did after getting herself and the dog home was have a very minor panic attack.
She let herself into the darkened apartment only with some difficulty, lugging the hefty crate--and its hefty occupant--up the stairs in one hand and fumbling with her keys in the other. Once inside she almost immediately tripped over a box. It was a new apartment, this one: she'd lived in California before but never in San Francisco, and never permanently. She'd been there since March, and the schedule that came with a superheroic lifestyle meant that almost nothing was unpacked. Most of it was still in boxes, scattered throughout the different rooms.
The house loomed eerily with their shadows in the dark, incomprehensible masses, and Natasha twice stubbed her toe on what turned out to be the edge of the downstairs sofa before she managed to turn the lights on. "Fuck," she muttered.
She set the crate down in the corner of the kitchen, in the end, where the dog would have a decent view of most of her tiny apartment, and lifted the blanket off one end to let him see out. It wasn't the sort of place she'd have chosen ordinarily: too bright, too open. There were too many windows. It had come furnished, though, with the sort of wicker-and-too-many-cushions style that people used to evoke beach-houses, and that was why she'd purchased it. She didn't have time for sofa shopping. Tiredly she pulled the curtains closed, and limped to the fridge, and poured herself a very large glass of wine. The cat made her presence known halfway through this ritual, appearing without warning by Natasha’s elbow, like the ill omen she was named for.
"I brought you a friend," Natasha said.
Liho looked at her, and then at the crate.
"Mew," she said.
Natasha huffed out a breath and sagged against the counter, the stone digging into her back. "Yeah."
The dog remained quietly, mercifully silent. She would have thought it had expired from the shock of the trip, if Liho didn't, at one point, come slightly too close to sniff at the sudden intruder, and got a low growl for her troubles. Natasha put her head in her hands. "God, Liho, what am I doing."
So at ten past two in the morning, slightly drunk on chardonnay and doubting herself, Natasha picked up the phone and dialed the only number she ever would during a crisis.
Clint picked up on the third ring. He still kept a landline; the mobile reception was shaky at best out where he spent his time. There was background noise: the indistinct white noise of a television playing in a lamplit room hundreds of miles away. “Barton,” he said, sounding tired, or maybe a little bored.
“It’s me,” Natasha said. “I need your help.”
There was a slight pause. “I’m on my way.”
“What?” she said, and then, “No, Clint, it’s not—it’s not like that.”
“Then what—” he started. “Hang on.”
Again with the pause. The television sound seemed muted suddenly; he was moving into another room, she thought.
“Okay,” he sighed, and it crackled down the line. “What’s wrong? What’s happened?”
“I think I might have adopted a dog.”
“Jesus,” Clint said. “That is an emergency. Okay. Sit tight.”
Clint took the next flight out that morning, and let himself into the apartment in the afternoon, his footsteps deliberately loud. They knew better than to walk silently around each other.
"Honey, I'm home," he called. There was a bag of kibble under his arm.
She blinked at him from the top of the stairs, wrapped in a dressing-gown. "What is that," she said.
Clint headed into the kitchen and heaved the bag onto the counter. "Dog food," he said. "I am reliably informed that dog food is, in fact, what dogs eat."
Natasha sighed. "I can buy my own dog food."
"Uh-huh. Is this him?" He was kneeling down in front of the crate, peering at the dog.
"No, that's my other dog," Natasha said, and rolled her eyes.
"Jesus, 'Tasha," Clint said. "That's a big dog. What is he, part German Shepherd, maybe? Hey, boy," he added then, this time to the dog, and stretched his hand out till it was just inside the open front of the crate. "You wanna come and make friends with Uncle Clint, like a good boy, maybe?"
The low growl was the only warning he got before jaws closed with a snap over the place where his hand had just been.
“He needs a collar, Nat,” Clint said later that night. They were sitting out on the front steps of the apartment together, Natasha nursing another glass of wine and Clint a Red Bull. “And maybe a vet visit, too, jeez. Most people don’t just come home from a holiday with a dog, y’know. That’s what we’ve got—customs checks, and stuff, for. What if he’s got rabies?”
“Clint,” she said, in a tone.
Clint threw up his hands in a gesture of surrender. “You saw the way he went for me back there! He’s aggressive, Nat.”
“He didn’t bite you,” she reminded him.
“Yeah,” Clint said, “because I got out of the way. What happens if some kid in the street tries to pet him like I did?”
“That won’t happen.”
“Because you’re going to keep him in that apartment for the rest of his life?”
She rounded on him, feeling a little like an unchained dog herself. “Since when did you start caring about what exactly I’m doing with my life?”
He stared, for a second. Blinked.
“Shit,” she said, under her breath. Looked at the pavement between her knees. “Sorry.”
“Don’t be,” he replied, slow.
“No, I am. I’m sorry. It’s been—it’s been one of those weeks.”
And Clint—damn him—Clint went all quiet and shifted closer till their knees were touching, and he said, “Just a week?”
She laughed. It sounded brittle. She spent a lot of time feeling brittle, these days. Once she felt always like stone, like steel. “One of those months. One of those years.”
“We all have ‘em,” Clint said.
There was a silence.
Clint tipped his head backs and drained what was left in his can; crumpled it in his hands, which were strong and callused and tanned and nothing like hers. They spoke of comforts and hardships that she would never know. With him sometimes she felt like a little girl again, looking into other people’s windows.
“I ever tell you about when I was nineteen,” Clint said.
“I’m not sure you were ever nineteen,” Natasha answered. .
“Let me tell the story, Nat,” he said, and so she did. “So I was nineteen. And I was kinda in a rut, I guess. Because you’re nineteen and you’re travelling and you’ve always only ever been travelling, just going from city to city, because you’re a fuckin’ circus sideshow act, really, which means people wanna see a lot of you after dark and not much of you in the day, you know? The lights go up, they go home. If they linger it just sorta ruins the magic. So they don’t. Linger, I mean. And I guess I wanted someone to.”
Her throat seemed suddenly very tight.
“But that’s what everyone wants, then, right? Of course I did. I was nineteen, for fuck’s sake. So here I am, looking for a change, and we’re in Omaha for a couple weeks, and there’s this girl. Heidi, her name is. From Finland, of all fuckin’ places. What she’s doing here I don’t know. But I don’t really care. I’m feeding the horses when she kisses me for the first time. Now, I’ve been kissed before, but not like this. It never meant anything before. I never wanted it to mean anything before. So I kiss her back, and God, Nat, I’ve never been in love like that before or since. Not like that. Not somethin’ so fierce.”
She traced the rim of her glass with a red-lacquered fingernail. “What happened to her?”
“She went back to Helsinki,” he said, which was the only answer he was ever going to give, really. She knew what kind of story this was. “Just up and left one day. Right before we did. I dunno if she got sick of me, or this country, or what. She promised she’d write. We had to send postcards then. Shows how old I am.”
“Nah,” he said, easy. “No, she never did. I never got her address, neither, so I couldn’t. I think about her sometimes. Just one of those things.”
She looked out at the San Francisco traffic for a long time. There was a cat in a warm bright windowsill across the street. “I know what you’re trying to say to me,” she said.
“Good,” he replied, and then said, "It's just--look. You're not the only one who knows stuff. I know why you're doing this. This dog thing. And I don't think you should be doing it, Nat. I don't think you should."
“I need another drink,” she said.
She got up, and went inside, and he didn't stop her, not at all.
Clint stayed the night, but early the next day he left, almost without telling her.
He had his backpack over his shoulder and his overnight satchel in his free hand, wearing as many layers as he could get away with to avoid extra baggage costs, when she came down the stairs.
“I’m leaving,” he said, looking at her.
There was a pause. “You gonna be okay?”
She crossed her arms and looked out the window. A grey morning, all still and humid. The birds had stopped singing. “You know me,” Natasha said. “I’m always okay.”
“Liar,” he said, but he said it without judgement, or she thought he did. Then he sighed, rolling his shoulder, the one he carried the backpack on. “I gotta get back to the kids. You’ll take that dog to the vet today, yeah? And get him a collar? If you’re gonna keep him?”
The way he said it hurt, like there was a chance she might not, that she’d take him to the vet and they’d tell her he was too vicious, that he ought to be put down, and she’d just agree, agree as if they’d never said the same thing about her before. “They’re not open yet,” she said.
Clint sighed again. “Okay,” he said, “well, take care of yourself. Gonna rain tonight, bet you any money. Birds are all quiet. Keep the cat inside.”
She smiled at this despite herself, this arcane farmer’s knowledge, a little fragile half-smile. It made her—not happy, never happy, but something like it, to see Clint settling into this new life of his, so concerned with the changing of the seasons. “Don’t do anything stupid, Clint,” she said.
“Right back at you, kid,” he said, smiling crooked and soft. “Right back at you. Call me if the world needs saving.”
“You say he’s aggressive,” said the woman on the phone, when Natasha called the vet’s office an hour later. She was in the kitchen, sitting cross-legged beside the crate, the dog peering silently and warily out at her.
“He’s shy,” Natasha said. “I’m not sure if he’d attack. But I wanted to let you know.”
She could hear the smile in the other woman’s voice even through the phone. “We’ve dealt with fearful dogs plenty of times. Bring him in now, and we’ll see if we can’t get this sorted before the practice gets crowded.”
This seemed, at first glance, like it would be easier than it was. The dog was still hunched up in the back of his crate, the food Natasha had put down just outside untouched, and it was no great task to lock the door again and lug the whole contraption out to her car. The drive was short. All the way the dog made not a sound. He seemed, if anything, resigned to his fate, pressed as flat as he could get to the floor of the crate, ears swivelling in fright at every unfamiliar sound.
When they got there the girl behind the counter told Natasha to wait outside with the crate; that the vet would come outside shortly to administer a sedative. “A sedative?” Natasha asked, wary.
“Standard procedure for aggressive animals,” the girl said, not much bothered. “It’s not enough to put them under. Just keeps them quiet enough for our staff to work.”
“Oh,” Natasha said. “Okay.”
She sat outside waiting with the dog, still unsure in the grey heat. The vet seemed kind enough when he came out to greet them, syringe in hand—blond hair greying at the temples, a weathered sweet face; and here was Natasha, a weapon in girl’s clothing sitting by a broken animal—and knelt down with a smile to peer inside the crate.
The dog stared back, ears flat against his skull.
“You said you found him running loose?”
“Yeah,” Natasha said. “Me and some—friends. We didn’t want to leave him there.”
“You did the right thing,” the vet said. “We’ll check for a microchip, but if he doesn’t have one, we’ll give him a preliminary vaccination course and proper registration, and he’ll be all yours.” He moved to the side of the crate and started prepping the shot. The dog, wary, turned to look at him as far as the limits of the cage allowed, pulling his lip back to reveal bright white fangs. “He’s a beautiful animal. Probably a shepherd-husky mix, with those eyes. It’s a popular cross. Any idea how he lost the leg?”
“No,” Natasha said. A low rumble filled the air; the dog was growling. He pressed himself as far against the other side of the crate as he could, but it did little good, and the needle slid in without fuss or the mangled digits she’d feared, into the thick fur of his neck where those teeth could not reach. Something deep in her insides twinged; she had to look away. "It’s not a—problem, is it?”
“No, not at all,” said the vet, easy. “Amputations are fairly common in dogs. Sometimes it’s just genetic. Either way, they’re perfectly capable of living normal lives. Now, I’ll go get you a leash. He’ll be quiet enough in ten minutes or so that we should just be able to walk him into the exam room like that.”
He was right. They opened the crate after a quarter of an hour and the dog, who Natasha had half expected to dash out in an instant and sink his teeth into the fragile skin of someone’s throat, did nothing at all. She slipped the makeshift collar over his neck, and he stepped forward easily, complacently, swaying a little. She caught sight of the strange icy dullness of his eyes and could not shake the uneasy feeling in her stomach. She had seen that look before, on a different and no less dangerous sort of animal, and would not soon forget it.
“Sorry,” she said, quiet, as the vet fastened a muzzle around those strong jaws. “They’re not going to hurt you. I promise.”
This was a thing she had said many times before. Never once had it been the truth.
At the counter afterwards she bought a collar, strong and sturdy leather in a bright shade of blue that matched his eyes, and got a tag made too, with her address and phone number on the back.
“What name do you want on it?” the girl said, pausing over the little engraving machine as if this was something simple.
Oh. Oh. Natasha hadn’t thought that far ahead. Names were not something she was good at. She had named Liho, sure, but that one had been easy: here was this little black creature, silent as a ghost, who came into Natasha’s life just before she went and fucked it all up. A bad-luck spirit; a reminder of the old country. Liho had been the only name that made sense.
She looked down at the dog by her side, swaying and unsteady from the drugs still, his hackles up from his neck to the base of his tail, which was tucked firmly between his legs. He would not look at her. He was big; even hunched over like he was his head came up to her waist. He looked like a gangly long-legged wild thing; a bear cub come down from the mountains looking for food and finding only an unwelcoming human world. There had been rumours about bears on the military base she grew up on: big bears, wild bears, with dark fur and insatiable appetites and long and savage claws. Folkloric creatures more than anything real. She’d seen the real ones once or twice, in the light of the day, and they were always just sad skinny things, rooting in the trash for fish heads. Trying to survive. Just like all the rest of them.
“Bear,” she said, and did not know quite why she said it. “His name is Bear.”
The newly-christened Bear was silent on the way back.
She didn’t even need to put him back in the crate; he just hopped up onto the back seat as docile as a lamb, not looking at her, head pillowed on his paw. She led him into the house and he limped in without a sound, head down as he edged past her like he was expecting punishment, and her chest hurt for him.
Whatever she’d meant to do, it hadn’t been this.
“The weather’s looking pretty bad,” she said, for lack of anything better to say, as Bear settled himself down on the kitchen floor in the precise place where the crate had been, leash pooling beside him. It was true. Black and angry clouds were pooling in the west, a green tint to some that spoke of bruises. “It’ll storm tonight. I need to put this collar on you, buddy. In case you get spooked and run off.”
Natasha had expected this to be unpleasant and difficult. Even sedated a wild thing was still dangerous, and she had wondered, idly, if she would have to tie him fast to something and muzzle him again to get it on. But he was either very smart or altogether defeated, and though he raised his head and growled from deep in his chest when she approached with the collar in hand, he made no move to bite. In the end he just went entirely and eerily still while she buckled it on, his ears flat and his eyes refusing to meet hers.
When it was done the dog relocated to the opposite end of the kitchen, backed into a corner, and waited for her to leave.
“Okay,” Natasha said once it was obvious what he was doing. “Okay. Shit. I’ll—leave you something to eat. I’m going upstairs. Please don’t piss on my floor.”
The rain that Clint had promised started to come down that evening, blowing in off the bay.
Natasha had just gotten into bed when it began, a book in her hand, tired and wrung-out, her eyes itching as if she had been crying. She hadn’t. She felt all shaken up anyway. It was her tradition to read, before she slept, every night: it didn’t matter what it was, or how bad the day had been, as long as it was something. It was a way to lose yourself. It was Rilke, that evening: neither for any underlying symbolism, nor even for the affirmation of the comforts and powers of solitude it so often provided, but just because it had been there. In a box. So many of her things are in boxes, still. A life lived and packed away and scattered, unopened, on a foreign floor. It all feels remotely like the detritus of a shipwreck.
The storm out there must be a ship-wrecker, too, out in the open darkness of the Pacific, beyond the blinking red lights of the seawall, far-off thunder cracks ringing out like the noises of distant animals. It should have been soothing, but the wildness of it made her stomach turn, and it was close to midnight when she had fallen finally, uneasily, into sleep.
An almighty crash woke her a short while later.
The wind lifted the curtains, rain splattering through the half-open window with a sound like gunfire, and Natasha startled out of a half-sleep, hand already reaching for the knife she kept under the pillow, because this was how far she was gone now: too far, beyond the boundary that marked an ordinary life, or maybe not far enough. Then a second crack of thunder followed on the heels of the first. The room was dark. Outside she could hear the rain on the roof, drowning out all other sound.
Just the storm.
She groaned and pushed herself upwards; checked her phone for the time. 3:37. No point trying to get back to sleep, then. She rolled over, fumbling inexpertly for the light switch: but when she hit it, she heard only a little click.
“Fuck,” she growled. Of course they’d lost power. Of course.
She ran a hand down her face and glared out the window, where the wind was picking up, trees creaking in the gale and lashing their branches against the glass. She must have forgotten to close them all the way; rain was forming a steadily growing puddle on the floor. It looked black in the darkness. It looked like other things.
The floorboards creaked. Natasha didn’t panic but it was a near thing, her heart thumping jackrabbit-fast against her ribs. She closed her hand again around the hilt of the knife and did not make a sound. A low whine sounded in the gloom, audible even under the drumbeat of the rain as it smacked against the windows.
“Hey,” she whispered.
There was the whine again. Natasha caught the pale glint of eyeshine reflecting in the dark, just for a moment. The door creaked as the dog nudged it open with his nose, uncertain.
“You don’t like the storm?” she said, just as unsure, and then, at a loss, “We lost power. I think the house got hit. It’ll be fine in the morning.”
The dog—Bear, she reminded herself; she had named him, now—must have taken the softness of her voice as an invitation, or at the least a comfort, because he crept closer, claws clicking on the wood. She released her grip on the knife, feeling very suddenly the knowledge that she must be still.
The press of his cold nose to her bare shoulder was still a shock. His tail thunked twice against the hardwood floor. He was shivering all over, but the night wasn’t cold. Outside, lightning streaked across the sky, lighting the room up in brilliant white for the barest second. Natasha caught a glimpse of the fright in his eyes; the way his ears were pressed right back.
She knew well that sort of terror, and what an olive branch looked like when it was extended, and sighed. “C’mon,” she said, petting the bed next to her.
Bear might have been a mistrustful creature, but he wasn’t stupid. He leapt up, quick and quiet, and peered at her cautiously, wolfish, for a moment from the end of the bed, before turning once in a circle and settling down, tail over his nose.
“Good boy,” she murmured, barely audible over the rain. He blinked at her, curled up in a neat ball at her feet, and it was the last thing she saw before she drifted off again. “Good dog.”
In the morning—or afternoon, really, by the time she woke again—the sky was grey and still and silent, the rain long ago passed on, and she was alone.
It was an expected thing, but she felt a little spike of disappointment regardless. She dragged herself out of bed and tossed her bath-towel from the other night onto the floor to soak up the rain, shrugged on a deep blue dressing-gown, and headed downstairs to look for Bear.
He was back in the crate again of his own accord. He slunk out when he saw her, though, tail waving in greeting.
“Hey, buddy,” said Natasha, smiling just a little. “Didn’t wanna sleep in that cage last night, huh?”
Bear pushed his head against her hand, asking for a scratch, and when she obliged he stretched out, yawning wide with all his teeth. The missing leg was an impediment to this activity, though, and he stumbled against her quite by accident. Natasha laughed, extending a hand for the dog to sniff. He licked her fingers. “Gross.”
She set the old steel kettle on the stove and sank down, her back to the cupboards, letting him settle down next to her. The world outside was gone still, the sky breaking up to reveal robin’s egg blue, and the silence broken only by the distant morning song of birds.
He was an entirely different creature, after that.
This wasn’t to say he was okay—he was skittish, still, and flinched at traffic and strangers and never really got along with other dogs—but he wasn’t the terrified miserable animal he had been the first few days. He allowed Natasha to pet him, so long as she provided advance warning, and tolerated the leash, even if his ears went back every time she picked it up.
Liho took a shine to him, too. The first time Natasha came home from a mission to find the two of them curled up guiltily on the sofa together she wondered if she was seeing things. They looked like a big misshapen mass, all pressed together, uniformly dark: and then Liho raised her little head, pressed up in a small ball against the dog’s side, green eyes blinking at her half-lidded. Natasha didn’t know if Bear was fond of this treatment, but he put up with it at least, and let the little cat follow him about the house and sleep on his back and steal his food.
The food was another important change, too. After a few weeks, Natasha caved and started feeding him more than just the kibble Clint had advised her to get, supplementing his diet with lean meat, eggs, oxtail and knucklebones from the butcher’s, fruit and vegetables. He accepted it happily and started to grow, filling out until the line of ribs that had once been so stark along his side was nowhere to be seen, and he was all sleek fur and muscle, larger and more imposing than she’d ever expected. There was something of the Pleistocene about him still, though; something deep-seated and primal and nasty. Something wolfish. People began to cross the street when they saw the two of them coming. Good.
She had to hire a dogsitter, after a couple weeks, when it became clear to her that her Avengers duties didn't stop because she had suddenly found herself with a dog. Even this he accepted, reluctantly, and though he always made himself scarce as soon as Kate arrived--Kate, the kid's name was, some friend of Barton's, fresh out of college and fresh to the coast, with a liking for dogs and entirely too much time and money both--he allowed her to take him out on walks, and, Natasha was told, guarded his new charge faithfully each and every night.
He allowed the continued existence of the crate, too, but it became clear quickly that he did it to be obedient; out of loyalty rather than desire. So Natasha made him a bed in her room, a pile of old blankets on top of a pillow. There was gratitude written all over him, that first night when she called him in and turned the lights off.
(It was a comfort for her, too, though she’d never admit it: to have that quiet reassuring presence with her, on the nights when the ghosts came for her with a vengeance. He’d jump up to sit with her if she asked it, gazing out the window solemnly with his ears pricked, a watchful guardian, and she’d always sleep alright, like that.
With him there she didn’t think of the past often, and of the crash of the buildings coming down in Sokovia only rarely, and never once of Bruce.)
When the days became longer and June moved inexorably into July, Steve came by.
“To stay for a few days,” was how he put it, awkward, scuffing the concrete with one boot. He had a backpack on one shoulder. “I mean, you know. If you’ll have me.”
Natasha eyed his bike, parked out on the street. “Did you drive here? Across the country?”
He avoided her gaze and she knew then that it was true. “I just,” he said, his expression doing something unreadable, “I needed a break, I guess. A change of scenery. You know.”
She did. She stepped aside. “Don’t track mud into the house. I get enough of that shit from the dog.”
Steve’s face went all strange. He sucked in a breath, about to say something that she didn’t need to hear.
“Don’t do that, either,” Natasha said.
“Don’t do what?” said Steve.
“Thank me,” Natasha said. “I don’t need that. You’re not sleeping on the streets.”
“Oh,” Steve said. “Uh, okay. Sorry?” At a loss, he looked at her and then at the sparsely-decorated hallway and said, “So how’s the dog going?”
Like an ill omen, Bear appeared at the top of the stairs. He peered down at them, ears back and head down and body low to the ground in that anxious way he had: but he didn’t growl, or bark, just turned around and slipped silent and ghostlike back into her room.
Steve blinked and said, “That good, huh?”
“It’s a work in progress,” Natasha conceded.
Natasha didn’t make the connection between Steve’s sudden appearance and the date until that evening, when they were both seated on her tiny second-floor balcony: Natasha stretched out and barefooted on a deck chair, and Steve looking oddly small hunched up near her in its twin.
She put her magazine down, watching drunk youngsters across the street waving flags. “So how old are you?”
Steve blinked; pushed his sunglasses up into his hairline. It was late but the sun stuck around for a long time in summer. “Sorry?”
“It’s your birthday, isn’t it? How old are you?”
He looked at her for a moment before he said, slowly, “Ninety-seven.”
“I’m sorry,” Steve said then. “I should’ve said something. I just—sometimes you want it to not be a big deal, you know? It gets exhausting.”
There was a lot Natasha could have said to that. She didn’t know what hurt worse: the presumption that she wouldn’t know, or the presumption that she wouldn’t care. But he’d come to her for a reason. “Well,” she said, in the end, “if you’d told me I’d have gotten a cake. Don’t know where I’d find that many candles, though.”
He laughed and she counted it a victory.
They had fruit buns instead of a cake, in the end, and ate them out on the balcony together while they waited for the fireworks to start. No candles, but she flicked on the string of lights the previous occupants had left twined around the slats and they sat there side by side in silence, smoke from the mosquito coil drifting up into the night. It was a summer smell. She had picked up the habit in Cuba.
Bear was nowhere to be seen, at least until the first distant booms and crashes sounded. Then he appeared as quick as he’d left, materializing all of a sudden by her elbow, ears back. She lifted her arm so that he could shove his bulk against her side, the way he wanted.
“He doesn’t like the fireworks?” Steve guessed.
“Mm,” Natasha said. She gave his ruff a scratch. “Hates storms, too.”
“You know,” Steve said, after watching the two of them in silence for a long while, “when I was a kid, Bucky always used to try and convince me the fireworks were all for my birthday.”
Bear looked up and over at the sound, ears pricked. She hushed him and said, “Yeah? You believe him?”
“Hell no. I used to pretend, though.”
Above them a crack like thunder; purple-blue light reflected in the windows. Steve leaned back in his chair and sighed, looking up at it.
“He’ll be fine, Steve,” she said, low.
Steve blinked at her. “That obvious, huh?”
She smiled. “Just a little.”
“Sorry,” he sighed. “I just—I wonder what he’s doing. Right now.”
“If he’s watching them too? If he remembers what you just told me?”
“He never gave up on me, Nat, not once,” Steve said, and then, “I can’t just—oh, uh. Hey. Hi there.”
It was the dog that had interrupted him, against all odds, slinking over nervously to lay his big head on Steve’s knee, peering up at him like he was expecting retribution just for that action. Awkwardly, and with great care, Steve reached out to pet the short black fur on his head.
“He just wants what’s left of your cake,” Natasha said, but even she sounded unsure.
“That’s not for dogs,” Steve told him. Bear looked betrayed and reluctantly sat, whuffing. He pressed his head against the heel of Steve’s hand. Coloured lights lit up the edges of his fur.
Steve looked thoughtful. “I thought you said he had problems with—you know, strangers,” he murmured.
Natasha’s mouth twitched. “Guess everyone likes Captain America.” In truth she thought it was something else. She had heard this about dogs, somewhere: that they knew intrinsically when someone was hurting. Scientists had speculated that they could smell it. She was not surprised. Loss hung over Steve like a perfume.
Another boom sounded right above them; the night was almost fully upon them now, and all lit up in sparkling colours. Carefully Bear settled down, lying down beside Steve’s chair. Steve scratched him under the collar, where it was most welcome, and Bear thumped his tail twice in gratitude and fell quiet, still and steady by Steve’s side. All night the three of them watched the colours cracking like lightning over the sky and the golden glimmer of the city, reds and blues and shining purples, all the way down to the bay, and the beaches, and the distant quiet reaches of the Pacific.
By the middle of the month Steve was gone again (“To see the Grand Canyon,” was what he’d said, smiling in that awkward self-deprecating way, “I’ve got a bucket list to check off, you know,” and that was that) and it was just the three of them once more.
Bear, who had oddly and immediately assigned himself as Steve’s guardian and had taken to sleeping in the hallway outside the guest bedroom—or, on one memorable occasion, on the rug in the bedroom itself—moved without complaint back to his usual place at the end of Natasha’s bed. Her life settled back into its predictable and comforting normality.
She wasn't doing well, not by any means, but she was okay. That counted.
All the same, Natasha didn't realize for months exactly how much she loved him, and how much she needed his presence in her life, quiet and steadfast.
It was a mission in Kigali that did it, in the end. There was nothing special about it; no world-ending threat or horrific realization. It might have been easier if there was. Just espionage: in and out again in less than twelve hours, with a thumb drive full of sensitive documents hidden in her jacket. The man she stole it from was a reasonably high-ranking government official. Big sprawling mansion when everyone else got slums, a dozen shining sports cars in the garage, an aviary on the edge of the grounds full of exotic parrots.
He'd hidden the drive in his daughter's bedroom, as it turned out.
Natasha crept in holding her breath, despite all her years of training, and did not release it until she was gone, even though the girl had not been there after all. It was kept stashed in a drawer, but she didn't know which drawer. She had to sift through this little child's belongings in the middle of the night to find it, this little child who had no idea about any of the sins of her father. She was probably with friends, at a sleepover, or on a school trip.
The girl had pictures all over the wall: cut-outs of ponies and little dogs, printed shots of her posing with friends or standing neat in school uniform, a poster of a moderately handsome boyish pop singer. Natasha looked at them and she thought how dare he, how dare they, how dare any of them, she's only a child, she's only a child, and then somewhere at the end there like a shot to the gut it became how dare he, how dare they, I was only a child.
She made it out of the capital with her throat catching and raw as if with illness, fury and misery hidden behind her sunglasses, and when she made it home at last it wasn't any better.
It was four in the morning when Natasha finally arrived back. The click-click of Bear's claws on the hardwood greeted her, his tongue lolling out of his mouth in excitement over their reunion, and that was just too much for her, too much for her after all of it. She shoved him aside and sank down onto the sofa, head in her hands.
She ended the night sprawled out there, spitting angry and full of grief for a youth she never knew, drinking cabernet sauvignon from the bottle because she was just too tired and too fed up to pour a glass. She'd break a glass, if she had one. When the sun was firmly up the dog came over, in his silent questioning way. He leaped up beside her, and very very deliberately laid the great familiar weight of his head in her lap, and stayed until she fell finally into dreamless sleep.
The morning when it all went to hell started just like any other morning.
Natasha woke before dawn, earlier than usual even for her, and stared at the ceiling for a quarter of an hour before giving up on the idea of sleep, and stepping quietly downstairs to work. After half an hour spent poring fruitlessly over files she heard the quiet click-click of claws on the stairs, pausing at the door to the lounge.
“Hey, Bear,” she said, and even to her own ears she sounded tired.
That was all the invitation he needed. A moment later a cold nose nudged insistently at her elbow, soft snuffling and tickling of whiskers on her skin. She swung the chair to face him and gave him what he was after, burying her fingertips in his ruff and the thick fur behind his ears and scritching. He whuffed quietly and leaned his head into her hand.
“You’re such a baby,” Natasha said. “Sorry if I woke you.”
Bear just yawned, stretching out one back leg and then the other and shaking all over.
“You’re disgusting. Do you even brush your teeth?”
He looked balefully at her.
“Ugh,” she said, leaning back in her chair. “I’m talking to a dog.”
Bear offered no comment, just settled down at her feet while she worked.
“You know what,” Natasha said eventually. Bear peered up at her, questioning. “This is ridiculous. I’m going for a walk. Come on, we’re getting out of here.”
It was still dark when they left: proper dark, not even a hint of grey in the east, streetlamps all still on. Most reasonable people were still asleep. Bear padded dutifully alongside her out to the car, click-click of his paws, tags clinking against the metal end of the leash. His movement was lopsided, and he was slower than other dogs, but it never bothered him, his three-legged status. She could admire that, that sort of unthinking fortitude.
She hadn’t meant to go far—a quick drive, to somewhere close-by and quiet where she could sit with the dog until she got tired enough to crawl back into bed—but the emptiness of the streets, the intangibility of them, inspired some strange sort of wanderlust in her, and she ended up driving further than she’d intended, until they made it all the way out to Lands End in her gleaming dark Chevrolet, the sound of the Pacific present under everything like the rumble of some wild creature.
Like elephants, she thought. This was a sound that elephants made, this ever-present low noise like the sea. It made her smile, a little, and she slipped her keys into her pocket and took up the leash.
They hiked up the slope together. It was early; there were a couple of still-drunk kids kissing slow and sloppy up against the side of their battered car in the parking lot as they went past, and that was all. It was a lonely place, with just the streetlamps for company, eastern sky lightening slowly. They passed the ghostly copse of trees in the Heights Park. Their thin and unblemished trunks seemed eerie in the lack of light, uniformly alien and strange like something out of a mid-century science fiction film; like the backdrop to another world. Then they crested the final hill, carpeted in little yellow dune tansies springing up from the grass, and came upon the ruins.
The concrete tangle of the old baths spilled its way down the hill, a jumble of stones and ivy and graffiti-covered monoliths jutting out into the ocean. The waves had swallowed some of it, lapping hungrily against the rocky barrier that separated the steel and concrete from the sea. Bear drank in the sea-smell hungrily; head raised into the breeze, tail waving from side to side like the rippling of a flag.
Natasha felt stupidly pleased. “You like that, huh?”
The sound of her voice made the dog turn his head, tongue lolling out. She smiled. “Never seen the ocean before, have you?” she said, very softly.
She glanced around for any sign of human presence, and finding none except some broken bottles from a past reverie, knelt down to unclip the leash.
Bear blinked at her, staring in shock at the leash in her hands like he couldn't believe his luck. "Go on," she said, and he needed no more invitation. He was off like a shot, sprinting down the hill in his funny lopsided way, dashing this way and that in wide and overjoyed circles. She laughed, because she had to laugh, because he was good for that if nothing else. She took her sunglasses from her bag and put them on, preemptive, and then a tennis ball, too.
She tossed it as far as she could for him and settled back on the dew-damp grass. Bear raced across the slope, chasing first the ball and then, when that was boring, insects, the first golden touch of the morning sun catching on his fur. The sun lit up the edges of the waves; the horizon; the rocks far-distant and crowded with seals. They splashed into the water all as one. Off to get their breakfast, she supposed.
Natasha was contemplating where to get her own when she realized what had spooked them: that was the low sleek form of the Quinjet, moving in fast across the water.
"Bear!" she yelled, clapping her hands together once to get his attention. Her phone was already buzzing in her pocket. "Bear, come!"
"One day," Natasha snarled, running at such a pace through the streets that she was practically hauling Bear alongside her by the collar, "I am going to quit this job. I'm going to quit and become a florist, or a baker, or a fucking accountant, anything--"
The deep boom of a nearby explosion stopped them both in their tracks, close enough that the ground shook. A plume of smoke rose steadily from a building two blocks away. Natasha made a disgusted noise and caught Bear by the collar, dragging him over to a nearby bike rack.
"Sorry, buddy," she said, tying the leash to it with the firmest knots she knew. "Not gonna be pretty down there. Need you where you're safe."
He whined when she stood up. When she turned and ran she could hear him crying behind her. "Stay," she said, looking over her shoulder, and headed to where the crowds were coming from.
It ended up being a HYDRA splinter cell who had taken their name a little too literally, and were attempting--what else--to summon a nine-headed serpent from another dimension in the backroom of a seafood restaurant in Chinatown. It had worked, sort of. They had wrecked no less than fourteen nearby businesses by the time she got there, and said serpent was slumped, missing seven heads and half of an eighth, lifeless over the dragon gate.
Steve punched a HYDRA agent so hard in the throat she heard his neck snap. "Hi," he said, and tossed her the shield so that she could slam another agent in the face with it.
"Hey yourself," she said, and threw it back.
"You sound cheerful," Steve said after a minute, as if they were chatting over a cup of coffee.
"Oh, you know. Nice morning. You don't sound too bad yourself."
"Well," Steve said, delivering a perfectly executed roundhouse kick. "You know me. Punching Nazis is one of my very favorite things."
It went smoothly, right up until it didn't.
She was struggling with three men at once--annoying, but nothing unusual--when one got her with a hard blow to the jaw. A lucky hit, nothing more; but she staggered back from it for just a second, hair in her eyes, and by the time she recovered she had a hand around her throat and a gun aimed squarely at her chest.
The agent looked as surprised by his good fortune as she did.
Natasha heard the crack of the shot going off and flinched from it, the grip around her neck going slack as the man was knocked to the ground, before she even really understood what was happening.
She staggered back and looked down at herself, expecting the slow spreading red of a mortal wound. It was like that, when you got shot (and she had been before, twice; she knew). For a second you just felt the shock. It was the force of the bullet itself that put you on your knees. You had enough time to think Oh, shit, I’ve been shot, and only then did the pain start.
But the predicted pain never came, and the blood that was on her clothes was not hers.
She saw the agent on the ground first, clutching at his newly severed trachea, blood spilling between his fingers. A deep and jagged wound. Fatal. Then, in the background, beneath the screaming and the sirens, she heard what she had been dreading: the ragged and awful cries of a dying animal.
Bear was slumped a few meters away, half on his side, in a quickly spreading slick pool of blood. His back legs had given out; he was trying to stagger unsuccessfully back to his feet with just the use of the front one. He slipped in the mess of gore and fell with a whimper, and did not get back up.
Feeling cold and disbelieving and sick to her stomach, Natasha rushed over, heedless of the still-present danger. He looked at her when she knelt down next to him, the whites of his eyes showing, tongue lolling out in a panic. There was blood on his jaws.
She tugged his head into her lap, feeling with trembling fingers for the wound. He must have—he must have heard the fight, and snapped his collar; it wasn’t on him any longer. At close range to the chest there had been no chance of the shot missing something vital; it was ragged and rough with a sizeable exit wound, and blood was pouring out unimaginably fast, soaking his fur and her jeans both. She could have stuck her fingers in it, it was so large. She knew wounds like this, and knew what they meant. It wouldn’t be long, now. Natasha swallowed.
“Shush,” she said, her voice wavering. He was crying, a constant stream of low and terrible whimpers. Of course he was. He didn’t understand. And just like that she was, too. “Hey, no, shush. It’s okay. It’s okay.”
Footsteps sounded behind her. The street had gone quiet. “Oh, Jesus,” said Steve.
She ignored him. “It’s okay, sweetheart,” she said instead, low, not caring who heard her. Bear’s ears swivelled to catch the familiar sound of her voice. “It’s alright. You did good. You did good, yeah? I’m okay. We’re okay. You can let go. Don’t worry about me. You can let go.”
The dog’s breath came hot and ragged over her clothes, drops of blood spilling out of his mouth as he moved his head; he shifted to drag himself further into her lap. She could feel the staccato beat of his heart under her fingers. It faltered fast, and then came slower and slower, and all the way through it Natasha kept up the quiet sweet nothings. “You’re okay,” she said once more, when his eyes started to take on a glassy look, and then said nothing else.
“Natasha,” Steve said eventually, in a voice like he was talking to a child. It was a voice she had heard him use before.
She got to her feet and turned away.
Bucky came back to himself slowly, not at all a normal thing for someone like him, and it was like pushing up through water, through fog. He felt the heavy edges of a dream on him still, but the precise form of it eluded him, and he found he could not remember what he had been dreaming of.
He realized with a start that he could not hear a thing.
He was deaf.
He was deaf, and he considered the notion in mute panic for one long instant. He strained to hear something, anything, his pulse quickening: and then slowly, slowly, they came to him. The sounds were there. They were there, but they were all muted and strange, as if heard from far off or through cloth. The tick of a clock, the steady familiar beep-beep of machines, the murmur of distant voices. He was on a bed, which was too soft, and which was, by the scent, not his own, and not Natasha’s, and his head hurt terribly. He could not hear the sound of his own heart, nor anyone else’s. The air was full, overwhelmingly, of chemicals, and nothing besides. Other smells refused, stubbornly, to come to him. He was as helpless as a pup.
The thought sent a rush of cold realization through him.
He opened his eyes.
Sterile room. White walls; white ceiling. Droll painting of a ship coming in to some cold Atlantic harbour on the opposite wall. He turned his head to the left and knew what he would see and sure enough there it was: his arm, the one they gave him, a little worse-for-wear after so long on the run, dull and with panelling bent or missing in places, but his, and human. He smiled at it, vaguely. He had never done that before.
He turned his head to the right, expecting Steve.
It wasn’t Steve.
“You’re awake,” said Natasha.
For a long while they looked at one other. Nothing else, just looking, like for the first time all over again. He looked at her and she stared coolly back at him, waiting, always patient. In full colour she was bright, unexpectedly, so bright it hurt him to look at, and he wondered at it, taking in every bit of her. She had her hair pulled back messily; was wearing the loose-fitting grey top he knew, now, that she often wore to bed. She looked very tired.
He licked his lips, which were dry and cracked. “Your hair’s red,” he said. “I forgot.”
She touched it in surprise; it took her a moment to grasp his meaning. “You couldn’t see it.”
“Just yellows and blues,” he said.
“Well,” she said, after a moment, “I’m sorry to hear it. I make a terrible blonde.”
Bucky laughed a little bit; his throat was dry and it turned into a cough, which made his whole body hurt something fierce.
She got to her feet, moving to pour him a glass of water from the little table by the bed. The pitcher was plastic and so was the cup; they didn’t trust him not to hurt her. “Here.”
He took it.
“It’s not drugged,” she said. When he still didn’t drink she added, “You’re on a drip; if they want you out they don’t need to dose your water.”
He looked at his real arm. There was indeed an IV in it, taped neatly to the back of his hand with medical precision. The bag was full of clear liquid; it could have been anything. He felt in control, though. But he didn’t feel like himself. “Am I—where are we? What happened?”
Natasha leaned back in her chair. “We’re at a Stark Industries facility downtown. You were shot. I assume that was you, anyway. Did you know dying would do the trick, or was that a guess?”
That explained the ache in his chest, or some of it. He struggled up and into a sitting position, careful of the cup. It hurt. Under the thin hospital gown his chest was swathed with bandages, thick and clean and white. Some of his ribs were broken. He could feel it. He knew what he needed to say, but he didn’t know where to start. “Where’s Steve,” he said instead.
“I told him to go home. He’s been here for three days.”
“Oh,” Bucky said.
She looked at him.
He took a sip of the water. “Do you want,” he started, and shook his head. “I guess I—owe you an explanation.”
“Guess so,” she said.
Bucky drew in a breath, trying to think of what to say, but Natasha held up a hand to stop him. “You don’t have to. Not yet. Not if you don’t want to. You’ve got a near-fatal chest wound; we have time. There’s only one thing I gotta know.”
He looked at her warily. She leaned back in her chair, and considered him carefully, and asked, “Are you going to run again?”
“Because you can. If that’s what you want. I’ll tell them you broke out; that you overpowered me when I tried to stop you. The doors are reinforced, but I really don’t think that’ll be a problem for—someone like you. I can disable the cameras.” She shrugged one shoulder. “For a while. I can buy you time, if that’s what you need.”
“Why,” Bucky said carefully, after a minute.
She gave him the smallest of grins. “Because you’re a good boy.”
He huffed a laugh; looked down. “Sorry I was such a—you know.”
“’s okay,” she said. “We worked it out, didn’t we? It wasn’t all bad.”
“Well. It was better once you stopped feedin’ me the same old shit every day.”
She tilted her head, smile soft and lingering, and he smiled back, because he couldn’t help himself. It felt like they knew each other, already, in some strange way. He supposed that that was true. “What?”
But she just shook her head at him. “Nothing,” she said, and then: “Look, if you’re going to leave, let Steve see you first. It’ll break him if you don’t. He won’t understand, but that’s okay. He doesn’t have to.”
He fingered the edge of the blanket. “I don’t know,” he said. “Running’s awful tiring. ‘Specially on only two legs.”
The silence was so sudden and complete he looked up in a panic. “Natasha?”
She was looking at him, and her face had gone all unreadable and strange. She got it under control quickly; glancing away like nothing had happened, but he saw it anyway. With great care he reached out, and brushed his fingertips—the metal ones—against hers. Natasha took his hand in hers and smiled that secret halfway smile.
“I’m glad you’re not dead,” she said, quietly, still not looking at him.
“So am I,” replied Bucky, and then he said, “Hey. C’mere.”
He tugged her forward and she went willingly, with a small sound low in her throat, and he wrapped an arm around her back and held on. Long minutes went by, and Bucky added, lowly, “If I'm staying, though, I want some place better to sleep than a dog bed.”
Natasha laughed and he could feel it, a welcome feeling, against his skin and vibrating in his chest, and it was warm and soft and sweet. He felt warm in his chest, also, where something warm had not been for a very long time. Like ice cracking in spring the final animal part of him shuddered once, sighed, and was still.