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[1999]

First, there is violence. First there is blood. They come hand in hand, like sisters, like secrets. They pave the way. Stain the stark white ground under the slate-grey sky like brushstrokes from a madman on a virginal canvas. The stains had names, once. All 27 of them. Shukhova here, Voroshilova there.

The rations and supplies left are enough for a week if she spreads them out well. The journey will be longer, even if she minimizes rest to the limits of her body. It all fits snug into Koroleva’s big coat, which lies heavy on her shoulders when she knots it across them. Romanova cleans her knives, and tests their sharpness, and looks around. She can melt ice to drink, swallow clumps of snow whole, but the lack of food will need to be remedied.

When she’s done, Romanova starts walking south and east and doesn’t look back. She was born alone and she will die alone. There’s no sense in living differently. Not when she has a purpose, a goal that is greater than her mind and her body and her thoughts. Looking back is for fools.

Then come the tests. Tests of will, of character, of strength. Through the trek the blistering white blinds on every side, licks away at the senses with pellets of snow aimed true, like fists. Fruitless, restless slumber tricks the mind with the howl of the pack of dead girl weapons that do not follow. Winter grows in her bones, and she lets it. Winter is implacable. Winter is invincible.

Blood and violence, they go hand in hand. They come first. Then comes the ache in her head, and the gnawing, empty pit in her stomach bubbling like acid; the desperation to eat the emptiness full, drive that ache away. To keep walking, despite the pain and the loss of feeling in her legs, with the sun to her left and the bear at her back, and home somewhere ahead, waiting.

The cold comes last.

__

She wakes, or she thinks she wakes, an age later. An age spent numb in the dark, too tired to shiver. An age waiting for the will to break. The strength to give up. She burns. But no, she doesn’t burn. She’s meat and bones and the burning of both carries a scent. The scent of fat melting, making a crust, filling the nostrils, the lungs. The watering of the mouth at the promise of animal calories in the belly.

This is warmth, or the memory of it. A slow settling through skin into muscle, heating the blood. With warmth comes awareness, comes the reality of flesh frozen stiff, frozen dead. Comes pain.

Distantly, unable still to open her eyes, voices reach her. She keeps her breathing even, slow. Does the same for her heartbeat, for the beeping of the machine somewhere beside her, to the left. Recognizes the hospital wing by the quality of its sterile smell, so different from the sterile smell of the rest of the facility. Isopropyl alcohol over bleach on tiles masking the sweet undertone of decaying organic material.

“Who’s our lucky girl?”  A man says. Old, from the echoes of fluid in the rattle of his voice. A smoker. Muscovite, by his accent.

“The Room named her Romanova, sir.” A higher pitched voice, the words softly spoken, emphasis on sir. A subordinate. “It’s General Bezukhov’s protege.”

“He will be pleased, then.” He is pleased as well. Himself a subordinate of the General, perhaps, able now to reap the benefits of his service.

“Sir, there is…evidence of starvation, some frostbite. The beginnings of Pneumonia. That is without accounting for whatever damage there was to her mind. There may be…complications, that we have no way of knowing about until she wakes.” Fear, in the subordinate voice. Fear of what? Fear of whom?

“Speak plainly, doctor.” Exasperation. Impatience. A dislike for elaborate speech.

“She’s barely alive, sir,” the subordinate voice explains. “It may be premature to call this a success.”

Barely’s all we need.” Exasperation again. “The rest can be perfected, provided you do your job as instructed. Am I understood?” A threat. Thinly veiled.

“Yes, sir. Anything else, sir?” Fear for himself, then.

“Clean her up, fix whatever she did to that hair, make sure she looks presentable.” Disgust. Disdain. “And send a man to let comrade Karpov know he should expect some company for his dog. I’ll speak to the General.”

Someone approaches the stretcher with heavy steps. A pull on the needle beneath the thin skin on the back of her hand alerts Romanova to chemical fiddling, before the world goes to bright gossamer, to the empty space and endless drone of assisted sleep. 

 

***

 

He lasts at Wilson’s the exact, miserable length of a week. A week until his skin feels too small and the softest of his clothes chafe and the air burns, and he can’t stand a single second more of another human being in the same building, let alone the same room.

Morning of the eight day, everything grating and digging into his insides like a corkscrew twisted into the opening of his ear, Bucky picks up his bag, tucks his burner phone into his pocket, and steps out. Makes himself use the front door. Leaves a note on Wilson’s fridge with the number of the burner, a promise to check in at 0800 when possible; a scribbled “don’t worry, I’ll be fine.”

Figures it’s common courtesy to at least do that much for a guy willing to put up with him, time and again, based on nothing but the word of a dead man.

A month after that, Nicholas Fury finds him.

It's not disconcerting. Bucky made it easy, staying Stateside, keeping a phone that could be tracked, speaking regularly to the same person for more than sixty seconds at a time; simply moving around on street level when roof top access became more of a hassle than actually getting over himself and risking security cameras and people.

He'd done his walkabout. Spent two years catching up on the seventy he'd lost, absent memory and will. Spent two years relearning how to be something like a person. If he'd meant to disappear when he'd walked out of Wilson's he'd have done it, easy as that. So to be found isn't worrying.

It's just…annoying. Annoying as fuck.

Bucky drops the gun from the automatic spot it took at Fury’s temple, clicks the safety back on. “The fuck do you want?” he asks, and it’s the first time in weeks he’s heard his own voice in a room. It echoes.

“To talk,” Fury replies, unmoving, hands still up. Without the floor length trench coat to lend rigidity to his shoulders their sharp downwards slope rounds him out, makes him look almost fragile. Old. About as old as he is, though Bucky’s sure he rarely looks it. Fury knows all this, of course. The best lies are the truest.

The water on the little camping stove chooses right then to come to a boil, bubbling beside the roll of the sleeping bag and the milk crate that doubles for a stool.

“So talk,” Bucky says, coming to crouch by the pot atop the stove. He rips the packaging off the night’s meal and shakes the contents in. Supposed to be soup of something or other. Chicken noodle. Something. It’s yellow, spots of white and orange here and there. Not that Bucky cares.

But Fury doesn’t talk, not right away. He looks around instead, walks the perimeter of the corner of the half-finished floor, of the half-finished building that Bucky’s chosen to spend the past couple of nights in. To say he’s been sleeping in it—been sleeping anywhere—would be to lie.

“Not much of a squat you got here, is it?” Fury asks, and it sounds like a question, but it isn’t, not quite. He’s not supposed to answer. Not supposed to have an answer.

“Does its job,” Bucky says, stirring the Whatever soup with the fat square top of a leftover chopstick from….somewhere, sometime this week. Mr. Li’s?

Can’t relax. Can’t stop tracking the specks of cement and drywall dust that float up around Fury’s heels, or the natural swing of his arms. Track the pattern of his breathing, his heart-rate (normal on both counts). Knows already that no one else followed him.

Fury points at the nearly empty bottle of jack on the unfinished, hip-tall wall that’s probably meant to be the beginning of a kitchen counter. Asks, “You mind?” But he’s already unscrewing the cap.

Doesn’t matter, so Bucky ignores it, stays quiet. Alcohol does nothing, solves nothing; the week long, failed attempt at achieving a state even close to unconsciousness attests to that. Attests to the kind of particular human stupidity that guarantees someone will do something, despite the fact that they know the possible results of that something beforehand, simply because that knowledge is second-hand.

Everyone thinks they’re special. Thinks life will work out because it’s them living it instead of anyone else. The brain’s hardwired to hope for uniqueness.

Cap unscrewed to release the tangy odour of barrel aged bourbon into the room, Fury picks up one of the empty water bottles on the ground, takes out a pocket knife. Cuts the bottom third off the bottle and discards the rest. He uses the little pool of water that's left over in between the dips and grooves to rinse the plastic out, picks up the bourbon and pours.

“You know,” Fury says, “Gabe Jones used to joke you were the closest thing to his mother the U.S. Army’d ever allowed him in the battlefield: smoked like a chimney, cussed like a sailor, nagged like you had a dozen kids under fifteen and snored so loud anyone who didn’t know you’d think a whole armoured battalion’d snuck up on ‘em when they wasn’t lookin’.” Fury swirls the drink, takes a sip. “Used to say you’d bleed yourself to death for each and every one of them, if it was blood they needed.”

“I don’t snore,” Bucky says, when he manages to make his jaw work again. That’d always been Steve. But they’d curled up so close in their foxholes Bucky supposes in the cold and dark of Bumfuck, Germany there'd been no distinction.

It’d been the only way he could get to sleep back then, close enough he’d wake up sweating from Steve’s superhuman heat pressed against his back, the ever-present rattling of his breath on Bucky’s nape the one thing that was still familiar from before Bucky’d had the soles of his feet scraped with scalpels, and his brain unwound like fucking orange peel in a Nazi freak factory.

“Is there a point,” he asks, acerbic, “or are you just here to reminisce?”

“He also used to say,” Fury says, undaunted, “that the only way to get a rise outta you was to get Steve Rogers on the wrong end of a gun-barrel; and that what anyone who’d managed that would get was never less than a bullet through the head—he always liked to end that story telling anyone was listening how, when they asked you why you always aimed so carefully for the octopi on their helmets when there were easier targets to shoot at, you replied it was proper punctuation after “fuck you.””

Fury pauses for effect, turns to face him from the edge of the tarp-covered hole that passes for a window. He downs the last of his drink, says, “So I’m wondering, given the circumstances, if you’re planning on writing yourself a very repetitive sonnet.”

Memory…memory’s distant. Anything before the winter soldier other than steve is…faded, like an old photograph after years of sunlight. Feels like someone else in those memories, in that body. He knows they happened to him, all of those things, but knowing doesn’t help the feeling. Doesn’t make the distance shorter, or the fog clearer.

Memory’s distant, but Bucky remembers that. It feels strange, in those terms, in what he supposes is as close to a direct quote of Gabe’s words as Fury can make it. He can feel Gabe’s Georgian drawl around the shape of the words like a taste in his mouth, the cheerful intonation he used to use every morning at sunrise, the end of his watch: rise and shine, motherfuckers, rise and shine!

On the best of days he’d go on to sing it in French and Frenchie’d join him, still half asleep, voice rough from the smoke of his morning Galois, and then Dugan would grunt along, and Morita’d curse the noise. Monty’d tell Frenchie to please, for the love of God, speak in a civilized tongue, and Steve would try and fail to make it seem as though the laugh didn’t shake him down to his toes.

Rise and shine, motherfuckers, rise and shine. If he wanted to scare the shit out of you, Gabe’d bark it in German—had a fun sense of humour like that.

Anyway, Bucky’d said that. Remembers saying that.

Autumn of ’44. The Herald Tribune’d sent correspondents that’d gotten to SSR headquarters while they’d been out in the wild, setting ambushes and bombing a weapons factory near the Polish border. The Tribune’d wanted to record a normal day in the unit, show people back home how the Commandos did it. Propaganda material, as though any one day in the unit had ever been normal. Like a war where the enemy had honest-to-god magic on their side could ever have a normal other than completely fucked up.

So a RAF plane’d dropped the Commandos off on its way back from a supply run. They'd been dead on their feet, irritable and aching, limbs stiff with the kind of chill that worms itself into the bone through layers of cloth and skin and muscle. The mud had carried it in, along with the stench of something rotten everywhere.

Steve’d gotten lead in his thigh, big, bright, dumb target that he was; bled like a stuck pig before Morita’d used his belt to tie it off until it healed on its own, closed up puckered and pink. It’d made him limp all the way to the command tent.

They’d not been allowed two hours of respite between sitting down for chow and being marched out for filming, pausing only to make themselves respectable and not like they’d actually been fighting for their lives, behind enemy lines, for any stretch of time. So Bucky’d done it on purpose. Cussed as much as he could that particular day, in front of that particular camera—profanities not allowed in the reporting of mass death and cataclysmic destruction aimed at all-ages America.

As far as he knows the Tribune’d had to discard most of the reel; he’d done his job so well there was no usable audio that didn’t have him saying something foul in the background, loud enough to be heard.

It’d earned him a dressing down from Phillips and a unit-wide dismissal, orders to get a minimum eight hours sleep. God forbid good, hardworking families ever have to deal with the realities of the men dying for them half a world away.

Bucky shakes his head, does a circuit of the room with his eyes. It’s easy to get lost inside his head, in the years this body lived with someone better than him at the helm. Makes himself stop roaming when he gets back around to Fury for the third time. What was the question? Sonnets. Right. He’s tempted to point out that sonnets couldn’t possibly have enough lines.

“And if I was,” Bucky asks, cynical, “would you try to stop me? Or would you just point me in the direction you want?”

Fury leans over the low, unfinished wall he’s been using as a makeshift counter, elbows white with cement dust where they touch brick below. “I don’t want a weapon, Sergeant,” he says. “I don’t need a weapon. World’s got plenty of those.”

“Then you’re wasting your time.”

“I don’t think I am.” Fury sighs. He walks around to Bucky’s side of the wall, leans back with his hands holding onto the uneven brick edge, elbows bent. “The world doesn’t need another weapon,” he explains. “It needs someone willing to do what it takes so that the weapons it already has don’t hurt anyone they aren’t supposed to. Someone willing to stand in the way of the unseen dangers so that innocents won’t have to. I think you’re that someone. One of a few.”

It’s a good recruitment spiel. The man knows all the right words, the right way to say them. The thing is, Bucky’s heard it before. “I'm not Avengers material.”

“Considering I’ve seen the footage from Thanos’ full frontal assault, I’d disagree, but I’m not talking about the Avengers.” Fury says, grabbing the bottle and pouring another two fingers’ worth into the cup. “Like everyone knows, they're benched until the leaders of the world get their heads outta their asses and stop trying to point the finger at the closest possible target. We're gonna be here awhile. Besides, the Avengers were always meant to be the nuclear option. They’re known, they’re public and they need to be.

"But what that means is that there are things the Avengers can’t do. Threats they can’t root out, can’t foresee; attacks they can’t prevent. Investigations they can’t conduct.” He tilts his head down, looks at Bucky over the black plastic rim of his blind-man glasses, both eyes fixed on him, one dark and depthless, the other dead, chalk white, grotesque.  “That’s what I need you for. Preventive action, not damage control.”

The problem here is that Bucky knows exactly what Fury’s doing —there’s a certain way all persuasive speakers use their bodies, exercise control over their countenance, occupy the space they move in, measure the language they use. Bucky can almost hear the words before Fury speaks them, can predict cadence, tone, infer desired result. He spent a quarter of a century listening, with his brain practically dripping from his ears, buzzing with left-over electricity, to Alexander Pierce do the same.

(Your work has been a gift to mankind).

And still, still, the words get into his head like a shiv through the temple, shoved in and snapped off at the hilt. They bounce, they echo. They appeal.

The problem here is that Bucky’s lost. Aimless, rudderless, alone. Fifty years he’d lived without a name. Fifty years he’d lived not knowing what it was to be something capable of doing more than terrorize, maim, or kill on command. Fifty years he’d had only cold, only pain and missions and his orders.

What does he have now? What use is assigning the name of a man long dead to a body that has nothing left to fight for, no one left to live for?

Bloody and terrible and monstrous, he’d had more purpose than he does now.

“Dirty work,” Bucky says, his voice flat, stare flat, face blank. Tell me more.

“Yes,” Fury admits. “I’ve been told it’s something you used to excel at.”

He’s not wrong.

__

In Austria, on the outskirts of the ruins of a labour camp, after seeing the impossible happen and still half-way to delirium, Bucky’d listened to Steve explain what chemistry and a high enough dose of certain kinds of radiation could do to a person. Had listened to Steve rationalize his own lack of a skinless skull for a head as a difference in procedures, an unfinished serum. Bucky’d listened and not argued, not contested the logic, because it was what Steve had needed him to do, but he’d known the truth.

And the truth was that Steve Rogers was good. Had always been good. Would always be good. And the truth was that being good had brought him there, had turned him inside out so the vastness he’d always held inside, that Bucky’d always seen, became the image of the man instead of a reservoir that lay hidden. And the truth was that, left to his own devices, being good would kill him.

(Men are laying down their lives, Buck. I got no right to do any less than them).

And all Bucky’d wanted to do was sit down on the spot, and rest his bloody, cut-up feet, and cry at the unfairness of the world. Find God just to punch the asshole in the face.

A Steve Rogers without the limitations of his sick, malnourished body was a Steve Rogers that wouldn’t hesitate for a second in taking Atlas’ place, wouldn’t hesitate to try and carry the whole world. Was a Steve Rogers that, between the twisted electrical impulses of Bucky’s melting neurones, had needed to be protected from himself.

So Bucky’d made himself a shadow, made himself something that would never leave his side.

The experiments, they’d turned him inside out as well. Their outcome was predictable, in hindsight. You can’t isolate the body from the mind, because the body’s a vessel, a perfectible carrier that allows the mind, the intangible ego, to interact with the physical realm, modify it in its image. So to upgrade the body means, by necessity, to augment the mind.

The thing inside of Bucky was an emptiness, a violence, a vengeance. It manifested in a keen eye and a trigger finger always willing to fire. The capacity for cruelty, for distance. Bucky’d become a weapon long before he’d been stripped of his name, had begun discarding the bits of his humanity that hindered his efficiency by nothing less than his own free will.

In a war were eight out of ten men had purposefully shot at the air rather than kill another human being, however just the killing, Bucky’d made it a point of pride to never raise his gun unless he meant to give it the use it was intended for. (He’d read, somewhere in the Smithsonian, that he’d held the American military record for most confirmed kills until Vietnam rolled around to take its turn fucking up gullible boys).

Someone needed to make the hard calls, the monster’s choice, and that was not a burden for Captain America. Couldn’t be allowed to become one more burden for Steve. Dirty work became the only work, and Bucky was glad of it. 

So Fury’s not wrong.

__

“What’s in it for me?” Bucky asks. For better or worse, he’s being made an offer, not given an order. The difference is important.

“You don’t strike me as the kind of guy that buys into the rousing path-to-redemption speech” Fury says, shrugging, “so how ‘bout this: you get to stop the kind of men that have the means and inclination to bring more Winter Soldiers into the world. With proper punctuation.”

Again, it appeals, sticks to the surfaces on the inside of his skull, pervasive. Maybe, if he does this, someone will realize one of him is one too many. Maybe they'll end it, do what he can’t—and why the fuck he can't is a mystery onto itself. Maybe they'll let him rest. And yet.

“Who would I answer to? You?” Bucky raises an eyebrow, leans forward, forearms on knees. “Because I have some memory problems,” he says, “but I seem to remember you being the main proponent of Project Insight, Colonel. Not to mention a weapons program based on the same technology that was capable of razing whole fucking battalions seventy years ago, in the hands of the motherfucking Nazi nut-jobs that built them.”

Fury raises both eyebrows, expression unnatural on his face, muscles unused to making it; mock-impressed. “You’ve done your homework,” he says.

“I’m brain damaged,” Bucky replies, “not stupid.”

“Glad to hear that,” Fury says. Shakes his head. “No, you wouldn’t answer to me. You’d keep me updated, someone needs to know operational details in case you need to be pulled out,” he explains, “but the choice to take the job and the manner of execution would be yours. And your partner’s.”

Oh, of course.

“Partner,” Bucky repeats, like saying it out loud will make a difference. Really, why even bother asking. He’s brain damaged, not stupid—it’s simple math. A spy is a spy is a spy. Bucky sighs.

Question: What would Steve Rogers do?

Answer, inevitable, unchangeable, undeniable: go with the stupid choice, Buck.

 

***

 

See, this is the kind of bullshit consequence that’s a product of having your face be a staple of the international news on and off for the better part of a decade. People watch. Some of them even pay attention. Faces associated with catastrophic events tend to stick, even if only vaguely.

Most people remember what sketches of the zodiac killer look like 50 years after publication, can recall basic features and tell the difference between them and the seedy-looking old man at the gas station, in the middle of the night. It’s the kind of pattern recognition the human brain is wired for, to see itself in anything and everything, and differentiate between two instances of the same sets of parts based on colouring and millimetric variation.

Sure, the more specific you get, the more difficult actual recognition becomes. Well applied make-up, the change of a colour here and there, a change in body language, and most people become invisible, one more generic face in an ever-present sea of people you’ll never bother to meet. There are ranges to specificity, tolerances set up within parameters of race, of gender, of public exposure. It’s easy to disappear under the poor vigilance of untrained eyes—it’s why her profession still works despite the increasing difficulty attached to maintaining even the barest modicum of secrecy.

The point is, faces stick. The point is, hers has the disadvantage of being well publicized and far, far outside the realm of generic. 

The thing about organizations like HYDRA and its many bastards, institutions that have survived in the shadows, backstage and controlling everything that long, is that their main skill beyond rotting everything they touch is survival. Like viruses and parasites, they adapt to the conditions of their environment in order to replicate unseen, and the first constant modification to master in order to secure success is to make itself safe.

Exhibit A: disruptive hologram scanners hidden alongside every single one of the security cameras placed above every biometrically controlled door. In a lab with two secure subbasements and a constantly shifting patrol.

And here they are. Here she is, with a gun to her head because the kind of stealth technology that she was counting on, that would let her look like anyone else, no longer provides anything but blaring alarms, and Mengele Jr. over in the corner watches more CNN than any sane person would recommend.

“I said, drop the knife, you fucking bitch,” says Thing 1 behind her, the cold muzzle of his gun biting through the wig into the back of her head. And god, the lack of vocabulary given to assorted henchmen is an epidemic. It’s like they say it by rote. It’s not even worth pretending to get worked up about.

Natasha sighs. She lets her fingers uncurl from the hilt of her knife, hears it clatter to the sterile white floor of the lab. Her shoulders drop, the muscles of her back loosening with a deep breath and a long exhale, tension moving down, to her hips and abdomen and the balls of her feet. She fiddles with the loose hem of her lab coat sleeves, feels for the thin metal discs she made sure to stash there.

Gotcha.

Thing 2 moves in front of her, gun held steady to her center mass. “Put your hands up!” he barks. “Hands up, ma’am, don’t make me shoot.” Miracle of miracles, this one managed to pick up some manners somewhere. Name tag says Unterman. Natasha may, in fact, send his closest female relative a thank you card. The unexpected has a way of making some jobs a little less boring.

(It’s the thing about Avenging: most other things blur together, become monotonous by comparison after a certain point).

Unterman continues to approach, as slow and careful and precise as he was taught. Clearly ex-military, protocol drilled into his bones. A shame, really. Natasha, hands above her head, flicks her wrist downwards in a fast arc, like shooting hoops in basketball, and lands the round little bite against his cheek, where it electrifies on contact, drops all two hundred pounds of polite security guard to the ground.

Natasha whips around before Thing 1 has a chance to paint the wall with the contents of her skull: drops her chin to her chest, spins on the ball of her right foot as she steps in the same direction with her left, pushing up with her forearm to dislodge the gun from the line of her head and then turning that point of contact into a hold.

She applies pressure on his wrist, and the gun falls, falls, falls, into her opposite hand. She passes him on the follow through of her motion, like an underarm twirl on a foxtrot. The motion ends with her at his back but he doesn’t know to turn with her. The wrist snaps, the elbow bends pushed up against his back, the shoulder pops out of its socket. Natasha kicks at his hamstring with her heel, shoots to the head as knees smack the floor.

Easy. It’s a lacklustre warm-up.

The door is shut. Sealed automatically after the guards posted outside flowed in. 500 pounds of steel between the biochemical nightmare in this room and the night-shift’s supply of warm bodies rushing to it in answer to the tripped silent alarm. Underground means no windows. Means the only way out is up.

Gun swings to the far left, zeroes in on the only other living body in the room. Her body follows, turns sideways. Natasha tilts her head, coquettish, and smiles wide. “So, Doctor. How fond are you of your kneecaps?”

__

The last guard standing crashes through the glass doors of the lobby, into the street, Natasha’s legs wrapped around his neck. It snaps under the torque of her hips as she swings mid-air, arms leading, drawing an arc with her upper body for the rest of her mass to follow. She lands on her feet to police sirens approaching and the next wave of the night-shift spilling out into the street from the second and third wings of the pharmaceutical complex; the two buildings on the right and across.

Natasha counts seven, approaching in a loose semi-circle, pistols drawn and pointing at the ground. She turns sideways, makes herself a smaller target, and shoots at the streetlights above. It’s not enough to blind them. Light pollution and the lengthening days as summer creeps steadily closer make sure there is always enough illumination to get by, but the sharp spark and pop of the glass cracking, the sudden leeching of light, the few seconds before most eyes recalibrate and pupils expand is all she’s looking for.

Attention spans are necessarily short under duress, a leftover from thousands of years of evolution. Sudden motion, sudden change—of anything—is distracting. Bodies are predictable, like algorithms, like code. Bodies are machines, and Natasha’s spent the better part of three decades learning to use them. She shoots and the glass breaks and the lights go out, and Natasha’s moving, moving, moving.

Her left foot finds purchase above the first stunned assailant’s bent knee—she pushes up with calves, and knees, and hips, with every bit of kinetic advantage small projectiles propelled by strength exponential to their mass can have. Her free hand smacks down onto the back of his neck; her right knee shoots up to meet her hand. The crunch of a dorsal bridge breaking into the cranial cavity is familiar, she can recall the exact sound by feel alone, despite the shouting, despite the rush of blood to the head.

A sideways shift of her hips and her knee keeps going, redirects, fluid and flawless, into a tangential trajectory to the lopsided sphere of that same cranium, over a drooping shoulder. Snaps open to land the brunt of her momentum into a kick to the side of the next guy’s neck. It’s not the way vertebrae are supposed to move, to rearrange. Forward and back, and up and down some, but not much, with some tolerance for sideways motion, some cushioning to counteract physics and outside force. But only some. Natasha’s heel hits the base of the skull from the side like a block of cement swung in an arc from the end of a chain.

Natasha disengages from both bodies as they fall, hits the temple of the man coming to tackle her from behind with the bony edge of an elbow. The guard stumbles back, disoriented, and Natasha follows. Grabs the knife in his belt, and turns back to slice down at Number 4’s swinging gun hand before he aims any higher than her belt. The sharp edge digs into flesh, tears through tendons; a hand goes slack and the gun drops to the ground, unfired. Her next move has the knife three inches deep into the side of his neck, snug in the hollow between collarbone and trapezius.

The dazed guard, to his credit, recovers quickly, raises his gun. Natasha’s faster. She swings the dead weight of Number 4 into 3’s chest, picks up 4's fallen gun, fires. Whips around to do the same to the rest and finish—

Bang, Bang, Bang. The shots come close together, from behind her, the pitch too low, the weapon silenced. So fast Natasha has no time to startle before 5, 6, and 7 drop dead like dominoes from synchronized cases of advanced lead poisoning; for every bullet a home and every home a head.

And there’s a very small subset of people who can make shots like that, that precise, that fast, in this light. Natasha turns, and feels light headed for the first time in the course of the night, and she’ll kiss him if she doesn’t kill him first, if—

Oh. The jolt of surprise-disappointment-anger, the lurch her stomach is apparently still capable of giving, helps. Stings, like burnt flesh right before the numbness sets in. Keeps her from floating away.

She knows those eyes, too, is the problem (sometimes far better than her own). Sees them, a vanishing barely-there blue, in the same nightmares that have her stomach spilling on blistering pavement in a deserted road of eastern Ukraine, the breeze from the sea carrying the smell of death to the pitch black birds that come to feast on her insides.

The same nightmare where she can’t fight, can’t move, and the dying is infinite. Where she doesn’t lose consciousness, where the pain doesn’t stop, where it rushes forward unending, reminds her she deserves it; the glint of hot shimmering metal always at the corner of her eyes, crowding the edges of her vision. The tastes of blood and gunpowder and ozone on her tongue, building in the air. The age-old punishment for tricksters, for liars, for traitors.

God fucking damn it, Nick.

Her back-up is the Winter Soldier. But of course it is.

__

Barnes tosses the backpack on his shoulder at her, says, quiet and gruff, “There’s a phone in the front pocket. Pick up. Don’t follow me.” He points at the security cameras across her and above him and she understands that he’s standing in the blind spot between them, won’t risk moving closer. But then he wouldn’t know she’s already tapped those for remote erasure later. It’s nothing but good practice on his part.

Natasha nods and watches him disappear back into the shadows of the alley without another word. The blaring police sirens come closer, grow louder. She slides the gun into her waistband, against the dip of her back, and turns back onto the street.

She jogs the first few blocks, down side streets and alleys, puts some distance between herself and the sirens. Then she walks. Lets herself stop in a back alley that turns out to be the rear of a restaurant with a busy kitchen. The air smells of burning sugar, of melting fat and the sharp-sweet tang of oranges. It makes her hungry, in the background, where bodily functions still matter.

Natasha ducks behind the dumpster, throws the wig inside it, disposing of it by way of one of the many black, heavy trash bags. Slides the bobby pins out of her hair and into the front pocket of her pants. Her head feels weightless without it, loose. Natasha wipes the sweat off the back of her neck with the sleeve of her shirt, then she strips to her compression shorts, into the swampy beginnings of a warm, humid night.

There’s a change of clothes in the backpack; jeans, a black short-sleeved shirt, a tan canvas jacket. A caramel newsboy hat, old fashioned and almost out of place but for the rising hipster population in the neighbourhood. The jeans are too long so she rolls up the hems into cyclist cuffs, and the jacket’s loose across the shoulders and baggy over her waist, and it’s good. It changes her silhouette just enough. She fishes a bobby pin back from the discarded pants, loops the length of her hair into a bun at the base of her neck and secures it there. Slides the cap on.

Inside the pocket of her coat she finds a garrotte looped on itself, the wire stiff, sharp, pristine. Sweet man, Natasha thinks, her snort muffled by the loud banging of pots and pans and the whistle of steam emerging like a tin-can orchestra from the kitchen doorway. (He always was).

As a weapon the garrotte is accessible, more easily concealed than the pistol at the small of her back, and silent; she leaves it where it is. She stuffs the clothes back into the pack, reaches for the burner phone in the front pocket. Earbuds stick out from the socket, trail after the phone before she catches them and sticks one in her ear. Slides out of the lock screen with a finger and finds a text written but not sent, waiting on the open message app. It’s an address a few blocks over, past some restaurants and a farmers' market.

Natasha nods to herself, memorizes the intersection, deletes the text. The staticky crackle of a radio filters in through the kitchen noise, startling her. Natasha goes perfectly still, listening as the crackle continues and the clicking of heavy duty boots joins in. She crouches, very slowly, against the brick wall at her back.

The radio cuts through the background noise. “This is Henderson,” says the man in the boots, stopped just beyond the open kitchen doorway. “No sign of her. She may have disposed of the tracker, sir. Signal led me straight to a dumpster.”

Tracker. Shit. No such thing as a simple fucking operation anymore. Sloppy, Natasha thinks, sloppy and reckless and nothing you were ever taught, in a burst of anger that dissipates quickly, gives way once more to calm. She’s done too much avenging lately. Worked too straightforwardly, too cleanly. It’s pleasant to find comfort in the trappings of her team of misfits, easy to forget, with them around, what she really is.

(Easy and dangerous, and if she were smarter than she is, she’d put a stop to it). 

“Copy,” a tired voice says through the radio. “Find the tracker, bring it back.” Then, “All units, this is dispatch, search radius to expand by a mile. We’ve lost electronic surveillance on target, visual confirmation is now a priority.”

Silence, above the background noise. Then the boots approach.

Natasha springs up from her crouch and bats at the just-unholstered gun with a hard smack of her open palm. Sucker punches the air out of his lungs before he can shout out, drags him down to the ground and puts him in a headlock, feet winding around his chest to keep him from using his mass against her, keep him from turning in her grip. He struggles, kicks and tries to twist his head, dig his chin into his shoulder, but Natasha hasn’t survived this long by being easily subdued. She keeps the chokehold tight and steady.

It surprises most people, how strong a woman can be. When they die well, when they die quick, surprise is often the last thing they feel. This one holds out longer than that. Long enough for panic, for terror and certainty. He stops struggling, eventually, under the pressure of Natasha’s arm cutting his airflow, and goes slack. He never makes a sound.

__

The tracker turns out to be a little dot of a microchip wired into the coolant base, rigged to blow a small explosive discharge that’ll shatter the test tube inside and contaminate the sample if tampered with. Life sucks and shooting people in the face can sometimes be a valid desire, if, apparently, not at all a morally upstanding response.

It’s wired to a battery is the point. Without that battery, even if the tracker has some sort of autonomy, which is doubtful, the charge can’t detonate. But that would also mean cutting power to the cooling system keeping the sample in optimal conditions.

Breaking the cold chain is probably fine, given it doesn’t happen for long. Maybe. Probably. Natasha’s not taking the risk either way. Can’t stay still very long with a dead man on the ground, with his team bound to check in any minute and get no response. She’ll just have to deal with the tail that’s sure to hone in on her the moment her signal moves.

Barnes is going to love that.

(God Fucking Damn It, Nick).

__

There’s a tactical advantage to crowds. It doesn’t lie simply in avoiding recognition by increasing visual input, though that’s a part of it. It is, also, that more people mean more witnesses, should something go wrong, and witnesses are a bad idea for covert ops. Witnesses ask questions. These days, questions of the sort demand very public answers.

So Natasha moves off side-streets and into the crowds of downtown New Orleans. She won’t exactly be hard to find, with her particular cargo, but it’ll be a pain in the ass to catch her.

The burner phone rings inside her jacket pocket as she hits the throng of people wading through the farmer’s market, a plan brewing in the back of her mind. Five bland, nondescript LEOs in equally bland, nondescript civilian clothes follow, standing out like sore thumbs with their military bearing and their radios. They're doing a piss-poor job of closing in on her.

Surrounded by amateurs. It's insulting, frankly.

“This is so creepy” Natasha answers, loud, as she moves up the line of the first sno-ball stand on sight, “I was about to call you.” She cocks her hip, crosses an arm below her breasts and into the crook of her elbow, tilts her head, loosens the line of her shoulders. The people around her absorb the change in body language, start paying half-hearted attention to the one-sided conversation.

“Status?” Barnes asks, business as usual with a side helping of stick-up-his-ass.

“Yeah, I'm on my way,” Natasha says, listening to the sounds of the opposite end of the crowd filtering in through his mic. “Had to take the long way ‘round, though, traffic is a nightmare.”

“How many following?”

“Oh, five or ten minutes,” Natasha says, moving up to the stand to point out a flavour at random, and making apologetic eyes at the lady vendor as she gestures to the phone, “don't get your panties in a bunch.”

Barnes chuckles on the other end, a wry, familiar sound. He asks, “You got what you came for?”

“Mhmm. Safe as houses, I locked the door on the way out.” Intel secured. The lady vendor snickers and finishes up with the sno-ball, stabbing the mound of ice through the hole in the plastic half-dome atop the cup with the edge of a bright orange spoon.

“Acknowledged,” Barnes says, clipped this time, as the blare of police sirens drowns out the the receding bustle of the crowd. “ETA ten minutes. Confirm.”

“See you in ten, sweetheart.” Natasha hangs up and hands over the money, rolls her eyes at the phone. The woman across from her interprets that as fond exasperation, not directed at her, and smiles in understanding. Natasha tells her, “Thank you so much.”

She shakes her head. “Don't you worry about it, Hun,” she says. “You have yourself a good evening.”

Natasha raises her cup in a salute as she turns to go, says, “Likewise,” and sets about disposing of five unlucky morons on her way to the rendezvous point.

__

LEO number 5 goes down by the ancient technique known as rammed-into-a-wall-by-car, to the sound of police sirens fading in and out like the Jaws theme in the background, courtesy of Mr. Subtlety and his impeccable timing throughout.

“How the fuck are they still following you?” Barnes asks, not bothering to wait for her to close the door behind her before engaging the reverse and driving them ass-first through the mouth of the alley, into the wider street.

“The wonders of modern technology,” Natasha replies. She fishes the sample out of her jacket pocket, holds it up. “There’s a tracker in this that’s wired to blow if I look at it wrong. I didn’t exactly have time to disable it on my way out.”

It's not like she's going to tell him she only found out about it through sheer dumb luck, while hiding behind a dumpster like a toddler playing a version of hide-and-seek that's more like seek-and-destroy. She has a reputation to uphold.

“So is now a good time to do that,” Barnes gripes, “or should we wait until we get the whole fucking state gunning for us, do you think?”

Great. Awesome. Amazing. The stick-up-the-ass is a mile deep and covered in barbed wire. She liked him better when he was going for the concussed baby bear way of life. (She liked him better when he was trapped inside a remorseless murderer, but Natasha's got issues, alright?)

“I don't know, I mean, I love a good car chase,” Natasha says. “Where's your sense of adventure?”

“Arlington,” Barnes mutters, and she probably should’ve seen that coming. He nudges her shoulder-blade with the back of his warm right hand, gestures to the mirror she's working in front of.

Natasha doesn't freeze on the spot, doesn't let loose on the shiver that wants to shake her down to her toes. She clears his sight lines. Twists down from kneeling on the back seat to sitting on the floor, and uses the seat for a surface as she begins the so-very-delicate process of ripping the quarter sized battery out of the circuit with one hand as the other slides the test tube from the rigged container, into the cool center of the raspberry sno-ball waiting on the cup holder. 

The container blows; a flash and a sharp pop. It fizzles and smokes and flies out the window like a fantasy Stark—with extreme prejudice and a helping hand. The tracker, disabled, goes with it, wires hanging out like entrails as it bounces on pavement.

“There,” Natasha says. “Happy now?”

Whatever answer he was planning on giving gets drowned out by the rear windshield shattering under a burst of sub-machine gun fire, by the impact of an SUV slamming into their trunk. The impact sends Natasha crashing into the center console, drives the breath out of her lungs.

She has to hand it to him: Barnes recovers quickly. Hits the break and braces for the second impact as he twists to fire at the offending driver through the ruin that's left of the rear windshield. He fires in bursts of three, clusters the shots in a triangular pattern intended for maximum damage on a single area. It’s every bit of the professional she knows him to be.

The last burst breaks through the armoured windshield, burrows into the driver’s neck and chest. Barnes turns back to the road, takes control of the wheel just in time to accelerate out of the way as the now-driverless car looses control and crashes into a road divider.

“Still breathing?”

“So far,” Natasha says lightly, biting back a groan as she climbs onto the softer, bullet-ridden seat, shaking bits of glass out of her hair. Her back is on fire, but everything moves the way it's supposed to. Breathing hurts, but it's manageable. Nothing broken, then. Nothing shot through. Only bruises everywhere.

Turns out she's not convincing enough. Barnes turns his head to frown at her. “You alright?”

Natasha smiles a smile she knows is sharp, knows is bitter and uncomfortable to look at. It’s also the truest one she’s willing to give him. “Just fine,” she says. “Would've been nice to know you'd be back-up, though. I’d’ve adjusted for mayhem.”

Barnes snorts. “S’not like I plan on it,” he replies, amusement in the set of his mouth and the lines around his eyes. Looks away, finally. “How many following?”

“Two, no, make that three more cars,” Natasha says, aiming for the front wheels of the first cruiser on the left. Firing. Then firing again. The patrol car goes into a tailspin, falls away from the chase. Two left. “Hey, what do I call you? I didn't ask, before.”

The look he gives her says Really? Right now? Couldn’t spell it out more clearly if he tried. It’s familiar. Steve used to wear the same one. “James is fine,” Barnes says, hitting the break pedal and and turning the wheel hard and fast, the tires screeching on pavement.

“You don’t prefer ‘Bucky’?” Natasha drops the empty clip, loads a new one. She smirks, balancing on her knees as he speeds them up, inquisitive and mock-cheerful.

He doesn't flinch, but he can't quite hide the tension in his jaw, in the lines around his eyes, in the white knuckled grip he has on the wheel. “James is fine,” he repeats.

And Natasha nods, lets it go because a name like that would hurt, without the man who gave it. She gets that. No one speaks to her with that soft a voice anymore. Instead, she says, as honest as she's able, “Thanks for the assist, James.”

The flash of something like a smile as he looks up at her through the mirror, awkward and out of practice. “Don’t thank me yet,” he says. “We’re not done.”

__

They leave the car in a burning heap on the outskirts of the city, the last police cruiser catching fire right alongside and the men behind the wheel regrettably alive, bleeding and groaning and tumbling out the doors. But they’re the last and won’t be following, and don’t need to die.

Barnes steals a motorcycle from a nearby parking lot while Natasha knocks the policemen out and makes sure the fire gets rid of all the evidence they might have left. When he comes back, she’s already standing away from the flames, back against a wall, sno-balled sample by her feet as she digs her fingers into the bruised ball of her shoulder, flexing her knees and rolling her ankles. Hurts ache more these days, leave deeper, longer-lasting bruises.

It should be comforting, that she’s survived in this world long enough for her body to start resenting the uses it’s been put to, but it isn’t. It’s almost scary. Things aren’t going to get easier. There’s no point in this race after which her body’ll be allowed to fall behind the peak she keeps it in by habit. Eventually, she’ll just finally die horribly or she’ll get booted out of the game, and it’s not dying that worries her. Spies don’t age well. Female spies even less.

Either the beast of a machine he stole was the only two-wheeled vehicle available, or James Barnes has some expensive tastes Natasha couldn’t have suspected of existing. It’s bright neon-yellow-and-chrome and it roars and rumbles as it gets near. It’s flashy, and turning heads is the last thing they need.

And here’s the thing: that’s how she knows to lean towards the former instead of the latter. His skills and his competence, the rigours of his training. Those are the only things Natasha can trust, and she can trust them only because she knows them in the marrow of her bones.

(Under the skin, they're the same kind of monster).

It’s not ideal; she can’t count on ideal anymore, but Natasha’s made do with worse. She will again, before long. So she opts for saying nothing and instead looks at it pointedly, then at him. Raises both eyebrows. Barnes rolls his eyes and shrugs—what can you do?—and throws the extra helmet at her, scoots forward to carve her a space.

Natasha makes do.

__

 

Their safehouse for the night is the basement suite of a town house deep in the suburbs whose owner is glaringly absent, and looks to have been so a while. It’s not exactly clean inside but there’s power and running water. It’ll do just fine. 

Barnes gets rid of the motorcycle and makes a bee-line for the shower once he gets back, trusting, apparently, that she's cased the place for any manner of surprise unpleasantries while he was away. She has. All the bugs in the house are her own.

Natasha claims the stairs to the backyard for herself, puts three doors and the sound of running water between them.

Fury answers on the third ring. “You’re on the news,” he says.

“My life’s goal, finally achieved,” Natasha rasps, tired, voice box sore from the smoke. “Again.”

“I take it the night went well.”

“Yes and no,” she says.“I got the sample, but I’m still waiting on the intel. The bastards were smart enough not to keep everything in one place.”

A silent beat. Then, “That why my car’s a bonfire in the middle of gang-land?”

“Mm. They’ve implemented stealth disruptors as part of their security measures. I got blown. Had to fight my way out.”

“Well, you’re good at that." It's sincere praise. She knows because it's related to the profession, related to her effectiveness. It's a safe topic to be truthful about, for a man that wouldn't trust the information on the left side of his brain to his right, if he could split the hemispheres apart. When she says nothing he asks, "Barnes there?”

“In the shower,” Natasha says. And she's not his employee anymore, not subject to his orders, or his wishes, or his whims. She's not sure if someone like Nick Fury has friends, but she supposes it remains the most accurate word to describe what they are. What they continue to be, trust or its lack non-withstanding. What that means is: she's allowed to be angry. “You know, we’re no longer part of a super-secret intelligence organization, you could have mentioned you were sending the fucking Winter Soldier as my back-up plan.”

“I could’ve,” Nick has the decency to acknowledge, “but where’s the fun in that?”

“I don’t think that word means what you think it means, Nick.” Natasha sighs, runs a hand through her hair. “You want me to assess him.”

“I do.”

She's not his employee anymore, but that doesn't mean the man's not still every bit as good at seeing the bigger picture as he used to be. Doesn't mean she shouldn't listen. He doesn't need to know she'd do it regardless, for reasons she never has and never will share. Some things are hers to keep. “Anything in particular you’re looking for?”

“Stability,” Nick says. “Operational Efficiency. Possible reactions to Steve Roger’s blood being used to create an assembly line of modified super-copies in a basement somewhere.”

“By which you mean,” Natasha interprets, “how do we make sure that last one doesn’t turn into a world tour of blood and random body parts, with his own very dead and cooling corpse marking the end.”

Natasha sighs one more time, just because she can. Because this is her life, and nothing surprises her anymore, and sometimes she wishes it did. Knows she'd hate it—surprises in her line of work tend to mean disasters and deaths, but it'd mean feeling something, at least.

Something other than the desperation, the gripping, all-encompassing terror that this is all there'll ever be. All she'll ever be. The job and the job and then the job again. Blood spilling on the floor, drenching her from head to toe. Hands that will never be clean.

Always alone.

She asks, “Why do you do this to me?” And it's a rhetorical question; Natasha’s overqualified for this. She possesses every necessary skill, and a lifetime of experience. But that's never stopped Fury from wanting the last word.

“I appreciate you,” is what he says, in as saccharine a voice as is possible when the only tones you're in the habit of using are bone dry, dry, and go-fuck-yourself. Which translating to plain English means, of course, that there’s no one else who has a sno-ball’s chance in hell of still being alive by the end of the job.

“My therapist friend,” Natasha says, “has recommended I find avenues unrelated to work that will allow me to express my appreciation for the people I value in my life. I thought it was valuable advice.”

“And how’s that going for you?” Go-fuck-yourself, reporting for duty. It's so familiar it makes her smile.

It’s a clear night. This far out into the suburbs the black sky reveals a spatter of stars like light through a blindfold. Little microscopic dots like keyholes to locked rooms beyond, like an invitation to eavesdrop on the universe. It’s enough light to see by.

“Not good,” Natasha admits, more to herself than anything else, the stars her silent witness. “Give me some time,” she says. “I’ll let you know when I know.”

Fury hangs up without saying goodbye.

 

***

 

He falls asleep without planning to, wakes up choking on air. The old, cracked leather of the too-small couch creaks and groans below him, squeaks overwhelmed under his sweat-drenched weight before he catches himself.

Bucky squeezes his eyes shut, digs the heel of his hand into the soft tissue of an eye socket as he gulps down the stale air in the room. Sits up with some difficulty, a machine lagging, running on empty. Realizes that he’s shaking when his knees refuse to still, when his feet twitch on the cold dusty floor of the living room.

A quick survey of the room reveals nothing unusual: the lights are off but for the blue disco flickering from the silenced television across him. The cheap, grimy, off-white blinds over the windows remain drawn and the background noise is made of nothing but the hum of the avocado coloured refrigerator and the occasional car driving through the block. Nothing but the metronome heartbeat of another person through the thin walls separating the bedroom.

Bucky rises to his feet unsteadily, scrambles to the kitchen. In the kitchen, he opens the faucet to temperate water, ducks his head into the sink. Cool droplets running down his back help with the sweat, with the fog between his ears, the pressure in his chest. He rinses a glass he finds inside the cupboards. Fills it up. Drinks it down once, twice, three times.

It’s June. The clock on the wall’s stopped an indeterminate amount of time ago, but the digital readout from the microwave pronounces it 2:15 in the morning of what must be Monday. The phone he’s still got in his pocket confirms both.

The marble of the kitchen island is solid under his fingers, smooth and cool to the touch, cleaner than most else in this place. The wooden flooring bends ever so slightly when he steps, creaking under his shifting weight. The air is humid and swampy and uncomfortable on the live-wire that’s the seam of his shoulder, and digging his fingers into it brings only momentary relief and the half-moon prints of short-sharp nails on perpetually chafed flesh. 

Wakandan engineering is superb. Though the arm looks much the same, it’s about a third the weight of the older one, resistant to virtually everything. He feels more with it, too—or more accurately, rather, than he used to. But none of that’s managed to convince his brain it’s up to snuff, so it hurts, still, like the older one hurt.

Most of the time it’s just noise, a vague discomfort, like truncated feedback from a ghost limb (exactly like it). He can ignore it then, he’s used to it. Other times…other times it’s like this, like a hot iron digging through the top of his ribcage into his insides, not hot enough to burn the nerve endings before the signal makes it all the way to the brainstem and leaves numb, empty cold behind. Not hot enough to skip past the pain. It’s exacerbated by temperature, or the way he slept the night before, or manner of use, or who the fuck knows. It’s there and he can’t change it.

It happens less now, the episodes diminishing in both intensity and frequency as the receptors in the arm continue to calibrate and adapt to the electrical impulses from his brain, just the way the techs promised before anchoring it onto his collarbone. They’d explained the process was designed to take months. Easier for the brain to acknowledge a change through time, like growth, than a sudden absence of something it’d known as a constant for so long. Promised it’d eventually stop hurting, too, once calibration was through. Bucky’s not holding his breath.

It’s June and the year is 2018; Bucky’s a hundred and one years old and Steve’s been dead little more than a month. This is the world.

A gun cocks in the silence. 

It’s June and the digital readout from the microwave pronounces it 2:47 in the morning of what must be Monday. What used to be a glass of water is a mess of razor-edged shards of broken glass and a puddle on the floor, translucent like black ice. There’s a network of cracks like the broken crust on day-old bread running along the width of the marble slab atop the kitchen island, starting at the spot where Bucky’d been resting his left hand.

The gun is Natalia’s, and it comes attached to her outstretched arm. To her glare and her frown and steady hands. Soft, warm halogen light streams into the room from the old lamp on the nightstand, through the bedroom door thrown open behind her. It lights up the tangled curls of her hair in a flaming halo while she’s left in shadow. Like a renaissance painting, except the violence is writ large. No longer veiled.

Chiaroscuro, little Steve supplies straight out of 1935 from the back of his mind, an old heavy tome on the stuff, borrowed, lying among the ratty blankets and under-stuffed pillows strewn on the floor as though the thing was pink-cheeked baby Jesus in Bethlehem, and they the angels come witness.

(Or the donkey, in Bucky’s case, like Mrs. Rogers always said).

He notes with some detached measure of relief that he's stayed rooted to the spot, that for all she’s got him at gunpoint Natalia's still across the room. That under visual scrutiny she appears uninjured.

A different pain registers, at last. Bucky looks down at his right hand and finds a mess of glass and welling blood, and barely feels the sting. It’s the mess of it that’s the final straw, the jolt that brings him back from the reaches of the fog and into full fucking consciousness. “Shit.”

Peripherally, he registers Romanova sighing, setting the gun down. She disappears for a minute into the bathroom, comes out with a faded red bag filled to bursting with contents that rattle over the steady sound of her breathing. First aid kit. Unzips and unfolds it onto the coffee table in front of the couch. She throws him what turns out to be a pack of sterile bandages, as per the lines of black block letters on white. “Here,” Romanova says, “before you get blood everywhere.”

Bucky catches it mostly on reflex, tries to speak but coughs instead. He looks away and finds the faucet still open, the water running sluggishly down onto the stainless steel at the bottom of the sink. Sets the packet down on the kitchen counter. The water’s cold on the wound. It’s deep, not long. He must have closed his hand on one of the bigger shards before it managed to fall.

What’s left of the glass in the wound is no bigger than gravel, comes out easily with some poking and probing. Bucky closes the tap, tears the pack beside him open with his teeth and stuffs the gauze into his palm, balled up, as he makes a fist and bends the arm up, knuckles pointed to his shoulder. 

2:49. Bits of glass glitter faintly on the ground, around the spilt water, and Romanova’s taken a seat on the floral print club chair, watching him silently as he moves about.

“Thanks,” Bucky says, quiet, still looking only at the space around her in quick flashes. She shrugs, leans her head back against the edge of the chair.

There’s a Swiffer hidden in the small space behind the fridge. The kind that’s just to sweep, uses no water. He locates it in the dark by the citrus-and-zest smell of the dry cloths, like a scent hound (it’s an apt description, he supposes. Dogs obey). Bucky takes it, and manages to sweep the rest of the detritus to a corner, one handed, where it’ll keep until clean-up in the morning without hurting someone.

The blood’s stopped. Bucky takes a seat on the groaning couch, surveys the exploded view of the First Aid kit spread onto the coffee table. He finds what he needs—antiseptic swabs, medical tape, a clean roll of bandages—and moves it onto a little pile in front of him. Everything else, Bucky puts back atop the open bag, which he then slides to the side. Someone else would need to turn on the lights, but he sees just fine.

Romanova’s eyes follow. “How much time did you lose?” she asks, finally, voice betraying nothing as he begins with the antiseptic swabs.

“Twelve minutes,” Bucky answers, almost automatically. The words come out unbidden, mechanical, before he has a chance to check himself. It makes him grit his teeth until his jaw aches.

(Mission Report—no, no, there is no mission).

Bucky holds his hand up, tapes the wound shut. He’s done wrapping it by the time she asks, “When’s the last time you slept more than two hours a night?”

(Damage sustained?).

“I’m fine.” It comes out a growl, harsher than he meant it.

“Right,” Romanova says. “Look, I’m sure getting violent when you randomly black out is just routine for you, but if you really want to try and kill me a third time, I’d rather you did it while fully conscious.” She brushes an invisible speck of dust from her bare left leg. “Preferably after I finish this job.”

A third time. Third. He wonders when it was that she started counting. What she considers an attempt. The number is too low. The number is wrong. Killing doesn't always mean ending lives, isn't always about snuffing them out. Sometimes it's going in and emptying someone with your bare hands after you've ripped them open, and then stitching them back together around the chasm inside.

Sometimes it's standing by and watching as it happens.

I'm sorry, I’m sorry. God, I’m sorry. Bucky says, under his breath, “89 hours ago.”

She raises her eyebrows. “Consider me impressed that you can still shoot straight, and your ample masculinity validated,” Romanova says dryly. Condescendingly, for that last part. Then crosses her legs and picks up the remote and says, “Now do us both a favour and go the fuck to sleep.”

Bucky frowns. “What, you gonna sit there and watch?”

“Don't worry, Barnes,” Romanova says, sweet as cyanide, smiling in the dark, “I can take the monsters in the closet if they come around.”

“Just don’t draw shit on my face,” Bucky says, and follows it with a sigh and a groan as he gives in and lies back on the couch, dragged down by exhaustion. It startles honest-to-god laughter out of her, and a fleeting stare he thinks might be sad, after, but she doesn’t ask. Somewhere old and forgotten, the sound of her laughter is a balm. 

June. Monday. 3:16 in the morning. Reluctantly, Bucky closes his eyes. She’s already gone when he wakes up.

(There's a hot pink post-it half-fallen off his forehead, the words ceci n'est pas une merde scribbled in elegant cursive under a cartoon turd with a smiling face).