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[personal profile] charybdis
Title: Mnemosyne (aka scenes from a girl!Bucky AU)
Characters: Bucky Barnes, Natasha Romanoff, Steve Rogers, various Avengers and Avenging auxiliaries.
Summary: Written largely for NaNoWriMo in 2012, based on MCU canon up to that point, with extrapolation and backstory based on comic canon. What (very) little plot there is was pretty much stolen directly from the Firebird folktale. Bucky/Natasha with Bucky+Steve and hints of past unrequited Bucky/Steve -- but it's not like anyone's broken up about it, and I'm actually quite happy with how I handled this throughline. If this thing had ever been completed, it would have had the following summary:

You’re in a car with a beautiful girl, and she won’t tell you that she loves you

(Love is for children)




.Part I.

This never happened:

 They have just come back from one of her ballets — her first starring role, and she is flush with applause — the first time — and still sweating a little and warm with it (and warmth means something in this country, when everything outside is snow) and she’d said, “I could learn to love this,” and she was so achingly young, and trying so hard to grow up. 

The crowds of her admirers threw flowers at her feet, roses and long-stemmed sprays of lacy white things, ribbons and tokens and gifts, and she was radiant with it, beaming in the white-flashbulb lights. 

This morning, Jean woke with a vague sense of uneasy fury roiling under the surface of her thoughts, and she touches her rifle with her flesh hand, thinks of the way Nata dances, graceful, thoughtless, and she wonders what she’s doing in this backroom of a too-grand theater, while her Nata feeds the eager audience lie after fairytale lie.

Alexi Shostakov has shown up three nights running at her door — on orders, if the way his face lit up when he first saw Nata is anything to go by — he was expecting a skinny girl-child, maybe.

Tonight, Nata murmurs to Jean, “He treats me as if he is in love,” with the edges of awe in her voice, surprise. She is still growing into her unique charm, only now coming to understand the full extent of her power. Jean knows the feeling (it does not occur to her to wonder how she knows). 

“Love is for children,” Jean tells her. It’s borne out of jealousy and bitter experience that she could not explain, because all her memories are dreams, dissolved under the light.

***

Last night, seven nights running, Jean has dreamed of cities under halos of smoke, the sunrise like fire and gilding, like rising, every day. She’s dreamed of a shadow, of following and following, a bright beacon, a white star, the only light in the corridors of blood and death. Seven nights running, she’s dreamed of nightfall like the wings of a raven, new-moon-dark, gleaming polished with stars, and the scent of gunpowder and scorched earth in her nostrils, burning, burning, burning. She dreams of things she cannot remember, and cannot remember her dreams upon waking. Seven nights running, she has dreamed of a slender boy who fit into her arms, like something precious, and she’s dreamed of a voice, telling her stories, pulling pictures out of thin air, instead of giving her orders.

“No,” Nata says, calm, implacable, reasonable, as if there can be any justification for staying.

Jean is crouched on the window sill, hands braced on the sash. Outside, white snow is blowing, light for this time of year. Nata stands beside her bed, thin nightdress pulled tantalizingly over her peaked nipples, not shivering.

“Come on, Nata!” The weather is as good as they’re going to get. Jean’s skin crawls with the imperfectly-remembered need for freedom. She flexes her hands on the sill until it creaks in protest. “You and me. We could be long gone before morning.”

Nata comes to the window — the windowsill gives Jean an extra few inches that she doesn’t need, leaving Nata to stretch against her body, hands braced on the frame, tilt her head back to meet Jean’s eyes. She smells like perfume — warm, rich amber and frankincense and sandalwood, a blunt contrast to the sharp-cold smell of snow — Jean breathes her in, again and again, almost hypnotized by the rhythm of her own breath. 

Nata’s hair is gilded gold, and copper-red, more like flame than metal. Distantly, Jean keeps expecting to smell ash. Someone had smelled of ash, once. “You shouldn’t be here. They’ll kill you if they find out,” Nata murmurs, leaning in. Her lips move obscenely against Jean’s neck. 

“I don’t care.” Jean leans back, out of the window, blithely swinging her body out over the six-storey drop. The fingers of her left hand sink into the dull-grey stone of the building. “Let’s go.”

“But Alexi—.” Nata takes a reluctant step back.

Jean sees rather than feels the feather-light trail of Nata’s fingertips over the coldsleek metal of her left wrist. “Just a name,” Jean almost snarls, suddenly overwhelmed with frustration — she’s lost count of the number of times she’s tried to escape. She’s never offered to take anyone with her before. Nata has talked about it, wistful with hope. They have nowhere to go, nowhere would take them in, nowhere to hide — Jean wouldn’t mind taking her chances, even with winter still inextricably wound into the landscape. “The heroic pilot, Alexi Shostakov. You have never even seen his face.”

“Maybe I love him already.” Nata takes a sharp step back, yanking her hand away from Jean. And Jean, once a queen, now nothing but a soldier, leaned backwards out the window, and snow wouldn’t melt on her hand, for she was the Winter Soldier, she sighed, “Maybe you do,” and she’d said, “But Nata, my heart, my darling, I will tell you something true — love is for children.”

She’s going to swear, she’s going to grab Nata’s wrist, pull her in close and convince her by any means possible. Except Nata is looking into her mirror, at the door and the window reflected there, and there’s something terribly tired about the line of her mouth, and Jean suddenly thinks about the rumors that say that Natalia Romanova is the lost Romanoff Duchess — carefully constructed lies, of course, but sometimes it’s easy to believe, the way sadness runs deep, under the pragmatic harshness of her usual manner.

The truth is, Nata is nothing but another orphan, victim of Stalin’s raise to power, of the purges, her family, her true lineage long lost to fire and snow and rubble. She was pulled from the wreckage by a lowly government official, Ivan; she was born many years too late to be a Grand Duchess.

The truth is, Natalia Romanova is the Black Widow, deadly assassin, spy, secret agent, the pride of the Red Room, and she can back up every last word of her reputation.

The truth is, for all her deceit and self-interest, Nata is more loyal than she will ever admit; she’s staying for love — that is true — but not for Alexi.

Nata says again, “I’m not leaving,” and Jean gets it. No one in the world could command the Black Widow to stay against her will, and likewise, even Jean, who knows how she thinks, moves, believes, cannot make her leave, unless she is ready.

Jean steps down from the sill, leaving drips of melting snow on the lush rug, the bare floorboards. “Then,” she says, stepping close into Nata’s space, “Let’s make the most of the time we have.”

She pretends not to notice the grateful spasm of Nata’s fingers, twined with her metal ones — not a difficult task, as she can’t feel it to begin with.



.Part II.

“Remember who you are,” shouted Captain America, holding out a hand full of blue fire — he had one wish, and of course he gave it away.

Jean Boudika Barnes remembered, staggered under the weight of it, fumbled her knife, dropped the shield, scrambled frantically out of range. “Shit,” she said, as Black Widow moved in after her, guard up, almost too fast to follow.

She caught Widow’s fist in a glancing blow off her jaw, but managed to keep her feet, swearing, came up in a rush and just managed to throw her into the nearest car, with enough force to toss her through the passenger’s window. She looked up at Captain America, said, “Steve?” It was too soft for anyone else to hear, but super soldier hearing picked it up, and he turned to look at her.

Remember who you are, he’d said.

She remembered blood on her hands. She remembered the crosshairs of her scope resting heavy on iconic foreheads. She remembered blood and fire and war, and most of all, she remembered shadows.

Captain America reached out for her, eyes so hopeful, said, “Bucky?” and she almost reached up in turn, but she could hear the Black Widow moving behind her, extricating herself from the car, and when she started to reach out, she could almost see the blood dripping from her hands. She pulled back, ignored the shocked and pained look on his face. She ducked under the blow that Widow aimed at the back of her skull, dodged to the side, turned her back, and ran.

***

She doesn’t leave New York City. She should, but this city was where she grew up. She remembers now, and she doesn’t think she could get very far with all of her memories suddenly dragging her down. This is the only city she knows, and she knows she came here for a reason.

On the first day, she digs the tracker out of her left palm. Despite her best efforts, she cuts something that shouldn’t be cut, and one of the delicate circuits burns out in a shower of sparks, and she manages to get the tracker out, but she finds that she can no longer close her left hand. Not that it matters much, she guesses. 

Her safehouse is in an old part of the city, and the building is falling down, and she can see the familiar layout of the streets if she could see out the grimy pane of her window. She learns the names of her neighbors and tries to be polite, throws a couple of would-be thieves down the stairs before the local criminal element learns to leave her alone. She’s been there for all of three days, before she comes home from her latest quest for weapons, to find someone waiting for her.

Actually, what she finds is herself shoved up against the door the moment she closes it, and a voice in the darkness saying, “What are you doing here?”

Jean takes one deep breath, feels her lungs expand, feels the unexpectedly soft press of breasts against her back, swallows against the tight twist of her collar around her throat, and says, “Hello, Natalia.”

The pressure around her throat doesn’t let up, and it is soon joined by the barest prick of a knifepoint, resting against the big important vein in her neck. “What are you doing in this city?” Natalia demands.

“Honestly?” says Jean, “I haven’t the faintest idea.”

The knifepoint digs in, and Jean can feel the sudden small pain that means blood. 

“I slipped the leash,” Jean says. “You know what that’s like. Running on instinct to wherever you feel almost safe, almost human.” 

“You remember something,” Natalia says.

“I know I was looking for the white star,” says Jean, flatly. There is no telling if what she remembers of Natalia is accurate, but Jean has never been a particularly good liar, and Natalia is working for SHIELD — these things are true. “But remember? I remember I was in love. I remember walking through red snow while the sky was on fire. I’m still sorting out which memories are dreams and lies.”

She can feel Natalia starting to relax, almost imperceptibly, against her. The knifepoint slips just a tiny bit, and Jean takes advantage, drops and pushes off the door for leverage, sweeps her leg out in one lightning movement, follows with her knee in the arch of Natalia’s hip, hands braced on the floor either side of Natalia’s head.

Natalia smirks at her from the floor, turns her head, presses her mouth to the inside of Jean’s wrist, the flicker of her tongue red-livid against Jean’s black leather glove. It's reflex, it's training, it's nothing but a manipulation, but Jean feels her pulse beat faster, her skin tighten around her bones in anticipation. Natalia writhes her hands free from Jean’s grip, plants her feet, and they go over again, panting and breathless when she comes down hard across Jean’s chest, shoves her knees a little wider and presses the long muscles of her thigh up, up, until Jean squirms and clamps her legs together. 

The knife clatters to the floor, and Natalia fists both hands in the open zip of Jean’s jacket to yank her up into her elbows.

“Yeah,” Jean breathes. There’s a very thin trickle of blood on the side of her neck, and she bites when Natalia crushes their mouths together, too violent to be called a kiss. 

They fuck right there on the floor, to the nighttime noises of the city streets, and the mingling taste of blood on their tongues. Natalia makes a soft, choked off sound when Jean sucks the blood from her lip. Jean wonders how long it’s been since the last time someone did that to her — maybe not since the last time Jean did it, back when the only sounds outside were the howling of the wind and the hiss of falling snow. Jean sends Natalia’s knife spinning off into the darkness. Natalia leaves a stunning series of finger-shaped bruises on the crest of Jean’s hips, the bones of her wrist. She fucks herself on Jean’s fingers, grinds an orgasm out of Jean with nothing but the slick slide of her thigh, smooth skin and too-perfect pressure.

In the end, they come to rest with Jean’s head on Natalia’s stomach, her right hand bare flesh, tucked into the curve of Natalia’s waist.

Natalia runs her hands absently through Jean’s hair. It aches, like pressing too hard on an old scar, an imaginary pain, the memory of blood.

Jean stretches, arching as best she can without dislodging Natalia’s hand, and says, “One orgasm isn’t going to do much to make me talk.”

Natalia gets a good handhold in Jean’s hair and gives a warning tug, tilting her head back, exposing her throat. “I have another knife,” she murmurs, the very picture of disinterest.

Jean’s hair is cut short, a few inches of thick, dark waves — Natalia’s fingers leave chaos in their wake, but nothing can really make the situation much worse.

“SHIELD wants me to bring you in,” Natalia tells her, “To protect the public.”

Jean scoffs. “SHIELD, huh?”

Steve Rogers wants me to bring you in, Natalia doesn’t say, just, “I told them you were as likely to come in to SHIELD as you were to go back to the Red Room.”

There’s blood drying on the side of Jean’s neck and it’s starting to itch and flake. “And if I promise not to menace the public? Are you still gonna try to bring me in?”

Instead of answering, Natalia shoves her off, gets to her feet and straightens her clothes. She pulls back her hair and brushes the worst of the dust off her knees, rubs the last traces of her lipstick away. 

Natalia pauses at the door on her way out. “No matter where you run,” she says, toneless, serious, “I will find you.”

She flicks the deadbolt home as she goes. It can’t mean anything good about Jean’s state of mind, that her words are more of a comfort, a promise, a vow, than a threat.

***

She moves to a new place, leaving behind nothing that could be traced to her. She goes through bars like nobody’s business, has been banned from one or another, for fighting, every night of the week — and twice on Fridays. Her left hand still won’t close, won’t move the way it’s supposed to, but she can still swing just fine, and she doesn’t need finesse to come out on top in a barfight. It’s getting old, she’s walking around with bruised and constantly scabbed knuckles, but she can’t imagine doing anything else with her spare time. 

Well, that’s not entirely true. Some nights she fucks people, instead of starting a fight. There is a specific kind of person who will look at her bare face and her short hair and her black gloves, her tight jeans tucked into work boots, who will look at her and see an invitation. There is a specific kind of person who will see her shirt with too many buttons undone, her black bra underneath, and the way she brushes a lock of hair off her forehead, who will look at her and see a challenge. She likes ‘em either way.

Tonight, she’s got her eye on the bartender. He’s got great cheekbones, solid, square shoulders, and smooth brown skin that all but gleams in the low yellow lights behind the bar. His hands reach unerringly for the bottles as he mixes drinks, and his eyes lingered gratifyingly on her mouth when she ordered. He keeps glancing over at her, too — she thinks it’s her black leather gloves. Either that, or it’s the way she’s been drinking whiskey since she came in.

“When will you be done here?” she asks, the next time he comes around. He seems slightly taken aback, but he licks his lips, and refills her drink, hesitating. She smiles her most charming smile, makes it turn up her eyes a little, careful not to show too much teeth. 

The bartender opens his mouth to reply when two things happen in quick succession. Some idiot grabs her ass, and she reacts without thinking, tossing the contents of her newly-filled drink directly into his eyes, sidestepping neatly when he howls in pain and surprise and takes a swing at her.

“Fucking bitch!” the scream of the whiskey-soaked asshole carries well over the noise of the bar, and people are turning to look and — oh, it looks like this asshole brought some friends. 

Too bad, she thinks, as she sets her glass gingerly on the bar, and gives the bartender an apologetic glance. She was kind of looking forward to knocking boots. 

She dodges another drunken lunge, lets the guy keep coming, and deftly redirects his face straight into the edge of the bartop. He flails a bit going down, doesn’t know when to stay down, either, she notes, and then his friends, just a bit too drunk to know when to collect their cohort and go, reach the bar, and it is on.

This is how she ends up on the curb outside, riding the knife-edged adrenaline high, nails ragged and knuckles bruised, licking blood from her split lip. It’s been raining, and there are puddles in the gutter. Lamplight pools around her, and she fishes a battered packet of Luckys out of her jacket, inspects them and is mildly surprised and pleased to find that they’re still intact, and she lights up. The street is dark — she’s sitting what the very little light there is on this street. Anyone sensible would have moved on, headed home by now. She inspects her gloves by streetlight, and finds that the leather is tearing, worn through, on the back of her right hand. The skin of her knuckles, scraped and bruised, is visible through the tears.

Halfway through her cigarette, the bartender comes out. He has a small bag of ice wrapped in a towel, and he reaches over, and puts it on her hand, over the torn leather. “Eleven,” he says.

She stares at him in confusion.

“Is when I get off work,” he clarifies, smiling. The way he smiles is wry and so perfect that it makes something twist up inside her chest, half-remembered, and she’s suddenly so glad that she got into a fight instead of getting into bed with him.

“Ah,” she says intelligently. Then, “Thanks for the ice.”

He nods, and to her surprise, he sits down next to her. She’s more surprised that he stays silent until she finishes her smoke. 

“I don’t usually work here,” he tells her. “This is my cousin’s bar. I owed him a favor.” 

She winces, doesn’t look at him when she says, “Sorry.” There’s not much else she can say, though she means, I couldn’t help it. Out of the corner of her eye, she can see him nodding slowly, as if he can hear all that, and more.

“Where’d you serve?” he asks, apropos of nothing.

She glances at him. “I don’t know what you mean.”

“I’ve seen,” he says, softly, “some soldiers, in my time.”

She laughs, utterly mirthless, stares into the dark where the street starts to blur in either direction. The street smells like ash and rain and exhaust. “It is,” she says, “So much more complicated than that.” If she’s a soldier, well, her war is one she’s fighting all by herself.

He makes a noise that -- somehow -- sounds like sympathy. He isn’t studying her, but he’s got his eyes facing the same direction as hers, and it’s strangely like he’s trying to see what she sees. She wonders what he does, if not tend bar. She doesn’t ask.

After a while, it starts to rain again, just a drizzle. He stands up, offers her a hand up, says, “I’m Sam, by the way. Sam Wilson.”

She looks up at him, thinks about what he said about soldiers, how it must be written all over her body, all over her face. Remember who you are, says Steve’s voice. Her mouth tastes like stale alcohol and rage, but then, that’s nothing new.

She smiles up at Sam, takes his hand. “Bucky Barnes,” she replies, “Good to meet you.”



.Part III.

Steve introduces her as Jean Boudika Barnes to the rest of ‘em, after they’ve made it out of the HYRDA base.

He is taller than her — for the first time ever, she finds that she has to tilt her head back to meet his eyes. It will be days before she really believes that it’s not an illusion brought on by the drugs, that her skinny friend grew into this giant of a man. She knows he is Steve, though — she’d know that stubborn set of his jaw anywhere.

She’s just finished throwing up the worst of the drugs that Zola had pumped into her. She is exhausted and bleeding and she saw the way they all exchanged knowing looks with each other, eyed the gun clutched in her hand, and if it hadn’t been goddamn Steve Rogers who’d called her that, she’d have clocked him in the face for being such an ass. 

One of these idiots is seconds away from making a ‘got the girl’ joke, she can feel it in the air. Instead, she wipes her mouth on the back of her hand, spit and bile, says, “The name’s Bucky Barnes, boys,” and, “The first person to call me Jeannie gets a bullet to the face, you got me?” She wraps up this elegant piece of oration by expertly checking the chambers of her gun, and shoving it into the back of her pants, and smirking right in their shocked faces, trying not to sway too much on her feet.

***

Someone is pounding on her door. Last night probably could have gone better, but she made it home in one piece, even if her aching head tells her that she should have had a glass of water instead of falling immediately into bed, her right hand tells her that she should have stayed out of yet another fight. The pounding gets louder, and her temples pulse in sympathy.

“All right, all right,” she shouts in the direction of the door, “Hold your horses, geez.” Her knife is on the nightstand, and she takes it with her.

The banging stops, but it’s soon followed by a rattling of the doorknob. Bucky judges that she’s got about five seconds before someone kicks the door in. She opens the door just in time to see a guy in SHIELD black squaring up to try it.

“What the fuck?” Bucky snaps. She doesn’t bother to put the knife away.

Natalia is there, standing behind the SHIELD guy. She’s in SHIELD black today, too. She meets Bucky’s eyes steadily, says, “This is Clint Barton,” and, “Can we come in?”

Bucky eyes Natalia’s friend, says, “Can I stop you?” but she steps aside anyway making just enough space for them to squeeze past her into the apartment.

Barton brushes past her and doesn’t seem bothered about giving her his back, which means he’s either too stupid to live, has a death wish, or he trusts Natalia. The way he cases the joint, clocking exits and sightlines is an argument for the latter, even though he then proceeds to stand inside Bucky’s space, close enough that a gun would be useless if she makes a move on him. He’s solidly built, thick arms, strong thighs, broad, callused hands that look like they should be holding a machine gun.

Natalia doesn’t quite roll her eyes, but the Must you be so childish? comes through loud and clear, as she squeezes her way through the doorway. Bucky locks the door behind her.

“Whaddya want?”

If Natalia takes note of her thick Brooklyn accent, she doesn’t show it. She settles on the salvaged couch, sits back into it and crosses her legs at the knee, like a lady. Barton doesn’t sit down, and he doesn’t back off, either. Bucky can smell leather and the edge of something warm-clean, not quite ozone, like a bomb about to go off.

“You’re not doing too well with the ‘don’t be a menace to the public’ thing, are you?” says Natalia, looking up at her. Her eyes are compelling, deep dark blue, the nearly-unnatural color a result of the Red Room’s alterations.

“So what,” says Bucky, glancing from Natalia to Barton and back again, “You guys are here to bring me in for SHIELD? Cause I gotta tell you, that’s not going to go well for anyone involved.”

She sees the almost imperceptible incline of Natalia’s head, so she’s not surprised when Barton grabs for her wrist. She is surprised that he manages to catch her, even though she’s moving almost before he does, gets his hand around her wrist — right side, more’s the pity — and twists until she drops the knife. Shit, he’s better than she expected — fast, too.

“You’re lucky you’re not dead already,” growls Barton. He’s got her arm up behind her. “Fucking careless.” 

Challenge sparks in Bucky’s blood; she’s got his measure now, and she meets Natalia’s eyes with a clear, I’m going to kill him if you don’t rein him in.

Natalia’s eyes flicker to Bucky’s left hand, frozen open, before she gets up off the couch, her face unreadable. “We are not here for SHIELD, exactly,” she says. “SHIELD doesn’t want you any more than you want them — though if you’re going to keep destroying bars at this rate, you may not have a choice.”

Bucky stays where she is. “A warning?”

Natalia’s eyes narrow, and she says, “A condition. There are people who would keep SHIELD off your back,” Steve, she means, “but you’re going to have to convince them that you aren’t going to self-destruct, left on your own.”

Bucky draws a breath to tell her where to stick it. Barton’s hand goes suddenly tight on her wrist, like he knows what she’s about to say, and he says, roughly, “He’s worried about you.” Natalia meets Barton’s eyes over her shoulder, a look heavy with meaning that she doesn’t have the reference to decode. The small bones in Bucky’s wrist are almost grinding together, but she doesn’t move, “the guy thought you were dead.”

Wouldn’t be the first time, Bucky thinks. She says, “Yeah, fine. I’ll talk to him,” knowing that they can probably hear it in her voice. 

Barton releases her, takes a sharp step back, suddenly he can’t get enough space, and Natalia’s face goes professionally blank again. Bucky flexes her wrist, tries not wonder if Barton and his sharp eyes can tell what happened last time she and Natalia were in the same room. 

Her knife has landed point-down in the floorboards. She’ll have to move again, but it isn’t as if there’s anything she’ll really miss here.

***

Monty used to tell stories about Queen Boudika of the Iceni, fairy tales, about her prowess in battle, how she led a small force against the Roman army and won. He was raised with fierce feminine symbols of victory to lead him into war, Nike and Pallas — of which Queen Boudika is just another facet.

Some nights, when they’re safe enough to risk a fire, the Howlers gather around and Monty tells them how Boudika sent the head of the Roman General back to the Emperor as a message, that the spirit of her people would never be conquered. Bucky likes it, even if she’ll never be a Queen, even if the only reason she’ll ever lead them into battle is because she’s quick and quiet and the perfect advance scout.

“She was a goddess,” says Monty. The fire makes his features sharp and strange, and it is easy to believe that he was there, that every word he says is true.

Dumdum breaks the silence, says, “Hey Barnes, you ever cut off an enemy general’s head?”

Bucky is sitting across the fire from Steve, rifle across her lap, cleaning the dirt from her nails with the smallest of her knives. She tilts her head to the side, makes a show of thinking it over — they’re still all new to her, haven’t yet learned that there’s so much more to her than the toughness required to walk right out of a HYRDA base through fire and chaos. 

“Head? Nah,” she says, after a suitable pause. “Usually there ain’t anything worth the name when I’m done with ‘em.”

This announcement sparks a round of catcalls, and she smirks at all of them, meets Steve’s fondly exasperated eyes across the fire and shrugs. After all, it’s nothing but the truth.

***

Peggy Carter is beautiful, but she only has eyes for Steve.

She completely ignores Bucky’s attempts to chat her up — which, ouch, but hey, Bucky isn’t every lady’s type, she can understand that.

Instead, she sits at the bar, and covets Peggy’s red dress, her straight-seamed stockings and sturdily-heeled shoes, her bright lipstick and her perfect, glossy hair. She wants her, she wants to be her; it’s hard, nearly impossible, for Bucky to tell which she wants most.

Everything about Peggy Carter shouts wealth. Not soft privilege, but the kind of wealth that exerts control, and Bucky could hate her, if she wasn’t so enamored of the curve of her mouth, of her sharp eyes and sharper wit.

Monty sits down next to her, and lets out a low whistle, says, “Bloody hell.” Dumdum appears on the other side, and says, “Killer-driller. Buck, your boy sure knows how to pick ‘em,” impressed.

Bucky thinks about the girls who passed him over before, when he was skinny and short and wheezed when he got excited. “Boys,” she says, knocking back the rest of her drink and motioning the bartender for another, “You got no idea.”



.Part IV.

“Good to see you,” Steve says, when she meets him in central park. He hands over a cup of something that might have been coffee at some point, but is now largely milk, sugar, and chocolate. He’s younger than she’d expected — it only makes sense, she knows he fell just days after she did, and he’s little more than a year out of the ice, where she’s been in and out for at least five times that.

They sit, sipping coffee. “You remember the coffee they had in Avignon?”

“‘Coffee’ is too generous,” Bucky says, grinning. “That stuff was tar.”

“Dernier liked it.”

“Dernier was raised on it, and he would have eaten the beans themselves if he could have.”

They finish their coffee in silence. Bucky wonders what the hell she’s supposed to say. She wonders if Steve remembers the Stark Expo, if he was surprised by the lack of flying cars when he first woke up, but it feels almost too personal to ask.

“Sam told me you showed up at his cousin’s bar,” Steve says.

“You know him?” Bucky probably shouldn’t be surprised. Steve meets a lot of people, and he never forgets a face.

“We volunteer at the same community center — this youth outreach thing,” Steve explains. “It’s something to do between fighting supervillians.”

“Of course.”

“I was going to let it alone,” Steve says. I was worried about you. “I didn’t know Clint and Natasha went out to find you.”

It takes a moment for her to connect Natasha with Natalia, though it really shouldn’t. “I’m fine,” she says, “Really. Just.” She considers her options, “A little different, is all. It’s been a long time.”

“Your arm,” Steve says, carefully. “They told me it happened when you fell.”

“Yeah.” He looks like he wants to apologize, but isn’t sure how she’ll take it. She holds her hand out, pushes her sleeve back just far enough to show him the gleam of silver underneath. “It’s not bad. Could be better.”

Steve glances at her for permission before he traces the edge of the exposed silver plate. “I know a guy,” he says, “I mean, I was kind of hoping to ask you if you’d be on my team,” he’s got a hopeful curl to his mouth that’s not quite a smile. He’s watching her, but he’s fiddling with his coffee cup.

She can’t think of an answer for a long time. “I can’t imagine SHIELD would let you,” she says, finally. “Some of the things I’ve done—”

“That wasn’t you. Anyway, we aren’t exactly SHIELD.” And how can he sound so sincere? Half the time, even she doesn’t believe that. “You ran off after the Cube gave your memories back, or I would have told you then.”

“I couldn’t just hang around after I’d tried to attack you,” she mutters.

“I would have listened,” Steve says softly, as if this is a question of trust.

Bucky gets up, suddenly desperate to have her head above his, quietly furious. “You’d like that, huh? Captain goddamn America, saves the day again.”

“Come on, that’s not fair,” Steve says. And he’s right, of course he is, when is he not, but that doesn’t mean she has to like it, even less so when he opens his stupid mouth and says, “Jeannie, please.”

He’s expecting it to be the magic word, he’s expecting her to deflate, to smile sadly and forgive, but that was so long ago. She was that girl once, but she has no desire to go back. Maybe she left him behind, but she’s tired of paying and paying for one mistake, and he’s always known she could be a good person — better than the bloody-knuckled, bruised, gun-toting soldier-spy-assassin that she was through the war, better than the thief-beggar-con that she was before that — living up to the person he wanted her to be is exhausting.

"Is that how it's gonna be?" She'll blame it on that, on her frustration and her temper, when she says, "Shoulda fucked me when you had the chance, Rogers."

The look of shock and hurt on his face is almost comical.

She can see the moment it clicks over in his head. His eyes go hard and his mouth thins to a sharp, furious line — people forget that Steve Rogers used to be a scrawny kid with more sass than sense, a temper on him like a bull, that he’s incapable of backing down from a fight, even if the fight is just plain dumb. “That why you chose the war over me?” he asks, low and mean, (but not dishonest, never that) “‘Cause I wouldn’t fuck you?”

She has never hit him in anger, not once, but oh, she’d love to change that. He’s expecting her to say something terrible about how he wasn’t much to look at, before the war — he’s still got a chip on his shoulder over that, she can tell — how she wouldn’t have wanted him then, even if he had offered. She should say something like that, because he’s braced for it, and anyway, it’s not true. Instead, she says, “No. That was because you thought you had to in order to keep me.”

He turns an interesting shade of red. “I never —”

“Save it,” she snaps, turning on her heel. She leaves him there, sitting by himself on a bench in the middle of central park, crushed coffee cup still in hand.

***

“You remember Mrs. Moore,” says Steve’s voice. “Lived next door to us in Brooklyn — she’s dead; her sons are dead, too. One of them died in the Vietnam War.”

Bucky is surrounded by darkness, can’t see a goddamn thing, but she can follow Steve’s voice.

“You remember General Fury,” he says. “Gave you that code name you hated — he’s dead; They say it took him a hundred ad fifty years to get around to it, but he died all the same.”

There’s a glimmering of light around the corner, and Steve’s voice says, “You remember Howard Stark. They tell me he killed two cities before the war was over — I guess you know better than I do — died in a car accident.”

When she rounds the corner, Steve’s not there. Instead, there’s a raven, beak open, talking in Steve’s voice, listing out the dead, saying, remember, over and over. The raven is perched in a tree, in the shadows of its branches, and she can barely see the heavy outlines of some fruit, apples, maybe, but with golden skin, hanging just outside the scope of the light.

The light is coming from a guttering candle, but the flame grows when she’s busy staring at the raven in horror, and soon the flame is larger than the candle itself, leaping up, the blue inner sheath blending into the shine of the raven’s wings. It smells of clean smoke, burning dry wood. The flame itself gains wings, spread out, burning, leaving behind trails of white ash, and it grows a beak, talons of coal, and it turns its ember-red eyes towards her and.

Bucky jerks awake in yet another apartment, hopefully a little harder to trace than the last two, her sheet twisted around her ankles, her head full of fire and death. She doesn’t think she’ll sleep again tonight.

It seems like a good idea to walk through her city; she goes out with the vague idea that it will help to ground her, help her to clear her head. This is where she began, after all.

It doesn’t help. The buildings in the dark all have the anonymous shape of her memories, and the shadows move like ravens’ wings through the headlights of traffic. 

Someone yells for help. 

Maybe if she were thinking clearly she wouldn’t investigate — she’s supposed to be lying low, and this isn’t a barfight, but she imagines that an organization like SHIELD takes a pretty dim view of vigilantes that they haven’t personally sanctioned. Maybe if she were thinking clearly, she’d walk past and head home. 

Remember who you are

Then again, maybe not.

She doesn’t have any weapons on her — what she has is her mask in the pocket of her jacket. She has no idea what possessed her to keep it, but she’s not sorry that she did.

It was never really a question of whether she would use it or not.

When she gets home, she has to wash someone else’s blood off her hands, but she’s been doing that since before she left this city the first time, some seventy years ago.

***

Bucky hasn’t been sleeping very well. She keeps waking up in the middle of the night because of nightmares. She manages to sleep pretty well, all things considered. But the weight that wakes her up is very real, settled across her lower ribs, and when she opens her eyes in the pre-dawn half light, she discovers that Natalia is literally on top of her, astride her lower ribs, knife in hand.

“Shit,” Bucky hisses in surprise. She quells her first urge, which is to attempt to throw Natalia off and go for her own knife, but she doesn’t quite manage to stop the surge of her heartbeat, the immediate tension in her body.

Natalia’s knife doesn’t waver, point just inches from Bucky’s face. “Where were you last night?”

Bucky frowns. “After nine or so? Asleep,” she replies, low, as if speaking too loud will upset some delicate balance and cause Natalia’s knife to come falling down. “But I can’t prove it.”

“The truth, Jean.” Natalia gestures pointedly with her knife.

Bucky takes a deep breath and tears her eyes away from the knife, looks at Natalia instead, holds her gaze. “That is the truth. And don’t call me that.”

Natalia narrows her eyes, says, “You’ve been sleeping badly — nine nights out of ten you end up outside, pacing the city.”

Bucky scowls at the implications of that. She knew that Natalia would be able to find her if she looked hard enough, but she hadn’t bargained on being watched. “Last night was night ten, then” she snaps. “Let me up, or we’re gonna end up destroying this place.”

Natalia lets her up slowly, gives her one last, long look, and Bucky suddenly registers that her eyes are a little red around the edges. “Jesus, are you hungover?”

She can’t quite believe it, but Natalia gives her a rude gesture instead of denying it.

“Where’s your partner?” Bucky asks, rolling out of bed. She’s not wearing much of anything, but Natalia isn’t fazed — nothing she hasn’t seen before, after all.

That gets her a scowl, and Natalia shakes her head, says, “Never mind that.” And then, flatly, “Sam Wilson’s been kidnapped.”

Bucky swears and immediately starts grabbing her gear. She shrugs into a t-shirt and then her holster, grabs her phone — a burner — has to dig her favorite knife out from underneath her mattress, but Natalia doesn’t even raise an eyebrow. Natalia is standing in the dim light that comes in through the window, the curtains are still fluttering in the slight breeze — clearly she didn’t bother with the front door. She’s wearing a climbing rig. She isn’t carrying a gun. She’s wearing the blank expression that Bucky knows as her professional face, cold, impersonal, unaffected. Bucky can’t decide if it’s because this is just work, or if it’s because it’s her last defense against whatever stress had her drinking last night.

Natalia does point out, mildly, “SHIELD is already investigating.” And there’s something in her tone that makes Bucky’s pulse kick up just a little bit faster. 

“Anyone told Steve yet, or is this strictly SHIELD business? I mean, you realize he’s going to flip a table when he finds out.”

Natalia doesn’t answer, instead, she says, “You can’t go charging straight into the middle of a SHIELD investigation. Sam Wilson’s life could be on the line.” That’s answer enough.

(They didn’t tell Steve because they don’t want him to go off book like he does, and they also caught it early enough that he’s not going to find out for a few more hours at least. No TV, no Internet, no newspapers.)

Bucky looks up from checking her mags, fumbling with her unresponsive left hand, irritation snapping along her skin — reloading one-handed is a bitch and a half. “Are you gonna try and stop me?” She’s as well-trained in retrieval as any SHIELD agent, and they both know it. She doesn’t want to think about what Steve’s standard ‘charge first and ask questions never’ style could do in this situation.

“Do you know anything that might help?” Natalia asks.

Bucky shakes her head, and then, suddenly struck by a thought, she asks, “Where’s Redwing?”

“His bird? We don’t know,“ Natalia says, frowning. Apparently, even SHIELD doesn’t have a way to pick out one clever bird in a city full of them. “What the hell are you doing?”

Bucky grabs her things, tucks her mask into her back pocket as an afterthought, and heads for the roof. “Come on,” she calls to Natalia.

***

Once she snuck into a HYDRA base and had to cut Steve free from a table. He’d had a tube in his arm, keeping him on some pretty strong sedatives, and she’d ripped the needle out of his arm, and he’d smiled dopily up at her, said, “Hey, Jeannie! Hi!”

She shushed him, and said, “You’re gonna want to say something about turn about and fair play — don’t.”

As it turned out, they’d taken a lot of blood, too, and he spent the better part of the escape leaning against something and shooting badly, occasionally saying outrageous things like, “I thought you were gone for good,” and “I thought you were dead — I’m glad you’re not, though,” and once, plaintively, “You left me behind,” which had made Bucky waste a clean shot, because it hit her right in the chest, sudden and aching.

“Can it, you big dope,” she’d said, but it came out affectionate, gentle, even as she blew out the back of an enemy soldier’s head.

Later, after they were long gone from the ruined castle, and Steve had slept it off, and the Howling Commandos had learned a whole new kind of respect for Jean Boudika Barnes, Captain America showed up in uniform, in Bucky’s tent, and he’d smiled, said, “I don’t know what you were thinking, Jeannie—”

“Don’t call me that,” she’d said, sour about it. "Not here." There was a long cut wrapped around her ribs, clean, shallow, but sore still, and she had always hated that name anyway.

“Bucky,” he corrected himself, immediately, “You’re real stupid, you know that? Coming to get me all by yourself.”

“I handled it fine,” Bucky said.

She’d burned the place after them, blew it to kingdom come and left a smoldering ruins in their wake, every last bit of what they’d taken from Steve, completely destroyed. She was sorry she hadn’t been able to rescue the rest of them, but then, she still had crawling, screaming dreams about what they’d given her on that table, and she figured it was probably for the best, mostly.



.Part V.
A quick recon shows her that it’s a very amateur operation. Bucky is honestly a little bit embarrassed for them. The jammer is still attached to the van, and it appears to be the only one they’ve got — Bucky hasn’t got the slightest clue as to how to turn it off, but she sticks her left hand right through the casing and pulls out its wiry electronic guts, and that works just fine. She sends the distress signal one more time, while Redwing nips at her earlobe impatiently, and goes to look for Sam.

She cracks the locks in under five minutes, there are no guards, and the room where they’re holding Sam is laughably unsecured. None of them are prepared for Redwing dropping out of the darkness of the rafters, screaming with vengeful wrath and snatching with sharp talons.

Sam glances up when she opens the door, gives her one terrified look, and says, “It’s a trap!” He’s actually straightening up from whatever he was crouched over one of his guards, apparently looking for something useful. There is a chair with a few hanging loops of rope on the legs, and Sam has uncomfortable looking scrapes around his wrists, cuff still attached to one.

He was clearly preparing to rescue himself.

“Yeah,” says Bucky. “If you’re talking about the silent alarm system sent to auto-call for backup? I disabled that. If you were talking about the guys on the roof? I disabled them too. I also made sure that the physical traps were disarmed. These guys aren’t very good.”

“Oh it’s you,” says Sam, “Thank fucking god. You were a spy, right?”

Bucky stares at him. “Who were you expecting?” she tries, carefully.

Sam blinks rapidly, cuts his eyes to the side, embarrassed. “Uh, not so much expecting."

“Hoping for, more like?” says Bucky, knowingly.

“Give me your phone,” Sam says, shaking his head. When she hands it over, he punches in a number and tucks it into his pocket. “Okay. Don’t hang up.”

(rescue type action)

This part is easy. This part is familiar.

Bucky takes a breath in, and there is very little light filtering in through the windows, but that doesn’t matter. She catches the first guy by surprise — he goes down with a gasp and a gurgle, not even enough time to get a shot off. Two is the same, but three gets off a lucky shot before she breaks his neck, somehow it hits her arm, sparking and spitting light, before going dead and heavy, and then it’s on, the last three converging on her position, knives out. She easily dodges the first wild swings in the dark — she’s used to this. But they’re a team, and she’s only working with one hand, and it’s only a matter of time before one of them gets to her, pain blooms in a line of fire along her ribcage, on her thigh, and she punches him in the throat in retaliation, kicking him someplace soft for a good measure. She’s bleeding, but the other two are tiring.

Truth, even moving her knife above her waist pulls at the cut, and she’s off balance from the dead weight of her arm. There’s blood trickling down into her boots. “Come on, boys,” she says.

They both lunge forward at the same time, and though she does her damnedest to sidestep, it’s not enough, and one gets her around the waist, drives her to the ground, and she barely twists away from the tip of his blade, aiming for her neck. The other catches her left wrist and wrenches hard, and the overtaxed shoulder joint gapes with a shriek of distressed metal. She’s writhing, shouting now, too, trying to dislodge them, and she can feel her arm being pulled out of the housing, and the goddamn cables won’t fucking break, and it’s moving inside her shoulder now, worse than when they first put it in, and suddenly she’s a lot less concerned with the guy trying to pin her, than she is with the one who’s about to remove not just her metal arm, but the cables that have hardwired it into her nervous system — these fuckers are strong. Suddenly the weight is lifted entirely off her, as her attackers go flying into the far wall.

“Hey,” says Iron Man, smiling wryly, holding out his hand to help her up. “Looks like you could use a hand.”

“Make sure Sam is out, It’s going to blow,” Bucky says. Iron Man nods once, and jets off. She shouts, “Everyone out!” And they go, like some kind of miracle, and she’s left staggering to the door, counting down the last few seconds in her head, running unevenly, unbalanced by the dead weight on her left side, but running anyway, hoping for the best.

She clears the door on five, and keeps right on running, clearing the blast zone, catches one reassuring glimpse of Iron Man carrying Sam, while Redwing attempts to herd them away from the building, like a sheepdog. She hits zero, and there’s a single breathless moment, and the world erupts in fire and roaring. It’s like a bomb, like a bombing, and it brings back such memories, not the ones of the Winter Soldier, but other ones, from when she was still just a soldier. Memories of the bombings of London, hiding under the streets in the underground while the bombs fell outside. She remembers war, but this is nothing like that, she can still imagine that it is. For some reason, that is important.

A sleek black SUV pulls up, out of the darkness, sending grass and dirt flying as it skids to a halt, and she has her knife in hand, but there’s no cover. She shifts her grip, figures she can at least take one of ‘em with her if this is how she’s gonna go — probably just as well, actually.

And then Natasha tumbles out, holding up her hands, and Bucky lets the knife drop from her suddenly nerveless hand, clutches at the still-bleeding gash in her side. The SUV then expels Steve, with his fabled shield in hand, a man with a spectacular bruise on his jaw, in a very well-fitted suit that somehow doesn’t hide his shoulder holster, and an exceedingly bleary-looking Clint Barton, who is neither in his Hawkeye suit, nor carrying a weapon, which is probably for the best. For a moment — it seems a lot longer — the Avengers just stand there, staring, silent. Blood trickles through the fingers of Bucky’s right hand.

Clint is the first one to move. He squints at her and steps forward, says, too loud, “Shit, you’re bleeding; come on, sit down, let’s go.” And he steps right up to her, holds her shoulders and helps her down, sort of forces her for the first moment or three, but she goes, because Natasha is just standing there, staring, and Clint Barton is someone that Natasha trusts, which counts for a lot, even in SHIELDs eyes. So. 

“There are bloody footprints in the grass,” Clint is muttering, “Who the hell, seriously I can’t even remember the last time I saw actual bloody footprints, It can’t just be your ribs, come on, don’t hold out on me, I’m an Avenger, miss you can trust me, I promise, Ain’t a doctor, but you can’t have everything huh, “

And somehow all this babbling has the desired effect, and she lets him sort of manhandle her into recovery position, holds the wad of fabric -possibly his shirt that he clamps over the cut in her leg, and doesn’t protest when he peels up her shirt part way just enough to look a the cut on her ribs, even though he watches her face very carefully as he does it. Clint Barton, it turns out is good for a lot more than just shooting stuff.

There’s another voice eventually, measured and calm, a man’s voice, so definitely not Natasha, saying, “Medical is coming, just a few minutes behind us. You’ll be fine.”

And then another face tilts into her field of vision, and it’s one that she can’t quite understand at first, because it’s so utterly calm, it’s almost hypnotizing, and she closes her eyes almost reflexively, not wanting to get caught up in the disguise. And she says, “Who’re you?”

“I’m Agent Coulson,” he says, and she laughs a little, but it hurts, so she stops that pretty quick, and she says, “Okay, and what do you want.” 

He makes an indifferent hmmming sound that would be bland and bureaucratic, but with her eyes closed she can hear the duplicitous edge to it, the sound of a stall, the sound of buying himself a few moments to judge how much he can trust her with. It makes her almost like him.

“I think I’d like it if you tell us before you go off book, but it’s a little too late for that.”

His cover is really good. If she weren’t used to Nata whose cover is always perfect, even in the invisible, office positions, then she never would have caught the sharp edge to his rueful, chiding tone.

“Sure thing, sir,” Bucky says, knowing that he’ll hear the ‘fuck you’ that the request deserves.

He’s smiling, though, when she opens her eyes, as if he appreciates it. She wonders if he’s not used to working with agents as good as Natasha.

She smirks back. “I’ll be fine, sir.”

When the Medical support shows up, Bucky insists on getting up herself. It pulls painfully at her wounds, but it’s worth it, not to be carried off. Steve is tucked suspiciously close to Sam, his hands around Sam’s waist, which, well. That answers that question anyway. Steve’s shield is in the grass by their feet. When a medic asks her to please lie down, agent, she goes without a word, still watching.

The sun is coming up, lightening the sky, and Agent Coulson follows her line of sight, says, “Are you all right, Barnes?” not so much like he cares, but more like he needs to know, just in case.

She glances at him, and she was wrong — however he sounds, there’s something gleaming in his eyes that says he does care, if only because he’s been there. Bucky decides she doesn’t want to know. “I’m fine sir,” she repeats, slurring a little, mostly focussed so that she doesn’t say that Steve isn’t who she’s been waiting for. So she doesn’t let anything slip.

The weight of her left arm, dead weight, cold and hard, is irritating, and one of the medics is sort of fumbling hopelessly with it, and she sighs, manages to reach over and unlatch it. Agent Coulson exhales, surprisingly obvious, but she just lets it fall to the ground, mutters, “Never liked that one, anyway,” and she means to look for Natasha, but the darkness is closing in, and she just—.

She must have lost more blood than she thought.

***

When she was younger, she beat a man to death for her best friend — she didn't mean to, and she's pretty sure that he never found out that she did it — he'd passed out, she was young and inexperienced enough to think he was maybe dead. If there's one thing she has always been proud of, it's her right hook. She stagged away from that one with her friend in her arms, weak with relief, but not guilt, not for a second. She's not a good person.

She dreams of doing the taxi dancing gig — if there was one thing she learned from her youth it was that people rarely look beyond the surface — the mind fills in everything that they expect to see. She wore a dress, she found some lipstick, she stole a pair of fine kidgloves and borrowed a neighbor's dancing shoes. By day she worked whatever job she could find, in a factory, in a slaughterhouse, selling papers — by night, she sold dances for a dime apiece, her time measured out in songs. It was good. It was something she probably would have gone crazy without. It was what had brought her to General Fury's attention, but that was just misfortune.

She dreams of zipping up her dress, of painting on a thick coat of red lipstick, like armor, and she dreams that the dimes she's paid in are silver coins, each one stamped with a fire, with the symbol of a flame. Her gloves are red, and both her hands move readily — flesh and bone.

She dreams that the first person to dance with her has dark eyes and dark skin and dark hair, too, sharp little eyes, and he's wearing a mask, one of those sick leather things with the huge, curving hooked nose. His voice is as low and croaking as a raven's, but she cannot remember or understand what he's saying to her.

The hall dissolves around them, and next thing she knows, it's an orchard, lit up by torches, and the raven man in her arms is tilting his head now, his curved mask solidifying into something more real, more dangerous, and then, suddenly under her hand, there are feathers, and she’s not dancing with a man anymore, but a raven, wicked sharp beak and sleek dark feathers, and she can see herself reflected in it’s glassy black eyes, the paleness of her face, the red lipstick like a slash of blood, her eyes sunken and dark as coals. The flickering red-gold firelight competes with the moonlight, and she can see the trees in the orchard are hung with fruit, just beyond the reach of the lights, and there are shadows flitting through the branches.

The raven clacks its beak, startlingly close to her face, and she’d grope for a knife, but she’s paralyzed by fear — unwelcome and unfamiliar. Then the raven opens its wings and starts to flap, ungainly, into the air.

The torches flicker and flare, and the trees catch fire, and she can see now, that the fruit is gold-skinned apples, and cherries hanging ripe on the trees, and they burn up as the fire touches them. She can smell her dress burning, she can smell her hair singeing, her skin starting to blister. 

A white feather floats into her vision, and she looks up, and whatever happened to the raven, it’s not a raven anymore, but a huge fire-colored bird, orange and yellow and red and palest blue-geen, long neck and trailing tail, and wings of blazing flames, and as she watches another feather falls, and when it comes to earth, it disintegrates into a puff of ash.

Her dress is on fire, like a living thing, the flames crawl over her, reaching down into her bones, and making her burn. She’s screaming, rolling in the grass, trying anything, anything, to put out the fire. But the ash-feathers drift down, and she thinks she can hear, barely, a voice singing to her in a language that sparks across her brain — words she should know, but she cannot grasp the meaning of.

She becomes aware of a hand wound tightly her hair, holding her still, and the smell of blood. She knows the voice singing to her, but all she can remember is a gleam of red and a shock of cold, the snow at night.

Then something is put over her face, and when darkness claims her, she does not dream again.

***

When Bucky wakes up in SHIELD Medical, she is not actually handcuffed to anything, which is a marked improvement on her expectations. When she wakes up, it’s to Steve Rogers standing over her, worry and contrition clear in his big blue eyes — which is not.

“I’m sorry,” are not quite the first words out of his mouth — first he assures her that there was no permanent damage to her nerves and that the interface embedded in her shoulder is still functional — but they’re damn close, and it’s really just cruel that she has to face him like this. Her whole body aches, even parts of her that weren’t sliced open or beaten up in the flight from that orchard — she guesses it’s probably whatever damage was done by the interface cables being pulled through her shoulder, which is now wrapped in a thick layer of bandages.

“Believe me, pal, you cannot possibly be as sorry as I am.” She doesn’t know how much she really means the words until they’re out of her mouth, and she can feel them, resonating in her bones. A moment later, she realizes that it could be taken as a brush-off, but of course, Steve doesn’t hear it that way.

The tension eases a little from Steve’s face, and he smiles, says, “You think I’d be here apologizing if I didn’t know that?” He pulls up a chair, and settles in, but apparently, they’re not quite done talking, because he says, looking guilty, “I shouldn’t have said— what I did. It was unfair.”

“Not untrue, though,” Bucky feels compelled to point out. She did leave him behind, even if he caught up with her in the end, even if she ended up following him into battle like she always did. They both know it had nothing to do with who was or wasn’t being fucked.

Steve looks at her for a long time, and he says, very seriously, “You know, you were the first person I ever fell in love with.”

I’m sorry, she thinks, hopelessly. “I know,” she says, “Believe me, I’ve been there, too.”

He looks a little surprised, which, christ — but she already figured out that he didn’t know. “I’m sorry I never told you,” Steve murmurs. “I should have. But—” he sighs. “I think I was never as brave as people gave me credit for.”

“You know that’s not true,” Bucky tells him. She knows it’s not true, too. That his reasons for never telling were a lot like hers, tangled up in friendship and desperation and the need to have something freely-given or nothing at all.

He smiles a forgiveness that she will never deserve, and Bucky doesn’t know what to say, can’t say anything, just bites her lip and looks away.

 “I brought you something.” He reaches down beside his chair and picks up a long box, helps her sit up a little before placing it on her lap.

“If this turns out to be flowers, I will be very disappointed,” she mutters, even though it’s much too heavy to be flowers, and the wrong shape, besides. She lifts the lid, and gapes. 

The arm gleams under the fluorescent lights, sleeker than anything she’s ever seen before, and clearly dangerous, besides. There’s an emblem on the deltoid — a red circle enclosing a white star on a blue field. She traces the lines of the plates, mesmerized. “What the hell is this?” she breathes in awe.

“I know a guy.” But Steve’s smile this time is strained and brittle at the edges. “They told me— the train— you fell—” he stutters.

She can’t tell him that her arm was the least of what she lost, not in any way that he will understand. So she says, “Hey, don’t be dumber than you have to be,” smiling, “I’m fine, adapting and everything — I heard you couldn’t even figure out how to work a credit card, first time,.”

Steve laughs at that, and it’s not quite the way it used to be, but it’s a start.

***

Natalia stands in the doorway for a moment, looks her over, and makes no secret of it, her eyes don’t even flicker when they pass over the mess of Bucky’s left shoulder. Then, apparently satisfied, she climbs up onto the bed, and perches in the empty space next to Bucky’s legs.

After the initial shock, Bucky realizes that Natalia has a knife out, and she’s fidgeting with it. It might look like a threat to the unpracticed eye, but she’s turning the blade over and over in her hands, and she’s flicking it from hand to hand, pointedly not watching it arc back and forth. There are no windows in Medical, and Bucky can’t tell how long she’s been out. She thinks about asking Natalia, decides she probably won’t get a good answer.

“At SHIELD,” Natalia says, “you can’t run off on an op without telling anyone.” She doesn’t sound worried, but she didn’t put the knife away after Bucky clocked her playing with it, so that doesn’t matter. She sounds angry.

“I like Sam,” Bucky tells her. She doesn’t bother trying to hide her irritation. “He woulda got himself killed trying to escape.”

“They were amateurs,” Natalia says, dismissively. Her knife vanishes, and she hops off the bed, lands lightly on her feet.

“And Sam Wilson is a civilian,” Bucky snaps. 

Natalia’s expression doesn’t change, and she doesn’t look away from Bucky’s face.

“What time is it?” Bucky asks.

Rather than answer, Natalia tosses Bucky’s cell phone into her lap. It’s eleven fifteen in the morning. She wasn’t out for too long, then. She can feel the familiar tightness of stitches in her abdomen and thigh.

“SHIELD is different,” Natalia says. “Don’t do it again.”

“If I’d waited to call it in,” says Bucky, “Sam Wilson would probably be dead right now.”

Natalia bites her lip, but her voice is hard when she says, “Let me be clear, Call. It. In.”

Bucky makes a face. “You told me there was a reason not to. I know better than to just throw my location out into empty air where anyone can pick it up.”

“You don’t tell anyone,” Natalia puts her hand on Bucky’s shoulder, right where the metal turns into skin, and she says, “You tell me.” This time, Bucky is the first one to look away.

Natalia says, “When I was sixteen, I made a very bad decision — forced prolonged life upon a man who had already come to terms with his mortality, who was ready to meet death. In the end it drove him crazy. I thought, at the time, I had given him a gift, but he grew to resent every second of it, and though I loved him — he was the only family I knew — we grew bitter with each other. In the end, he killed himself, and took many other lives at the same time.”

Bucky stares at her. “Who—?” she asks, and clamps her mouth shut, because it’s not her place to ask, not by a long shot.

Natalia looks away. “You’d trust me with your life,” she says, after a while.

“I do,” Bucky says. It’s true, she can feel it in her bones.

“You misunderstand,” Natalia tells her. “You’d trust me with your life, but would you also trust me with your death? Would you trust me to kill you?”

Bucky leans back and considers the question. Natalia would make it quick, sure, clean and professional, no matter what, but Bucky knows that that’s not really the question. Still, Natalia is pragmatic and surprisingly kind and she understands how Bucky thinks, and there’s only one answer. “Yeah,  I do.”

“There are many things I have never told you. Some things I cannot tell you, no matter how much I wish I could.” Natalia looks across the seat at Bucky, trying to convey some desperate message. Her eyes are midnight blue, and luminous. Bucky trusts her with her life. She gets it.

“I don’t need to know everything to know everything that matters,” Bucky says, obediently, “Yeah, all right.”

Nata smiles then, a tiny honest curl of her mouth, small and secretive, just for Bucky.

Bucky watches, mesmerized, and thinks hopelessly that she’ll never be able to earn what she really wants.



.Part VI.
Bucky is about ready to leave, but SHIELD took all her gear when she came in, and she hasn’t had a chance to stock up again. She has small arms covered, if not as well as she’d like, but she’s going to need a rifle, at least, and a scope would make her more certain about her chances of survival.

She could try running back to her place, but it’s not safe there, and there’s no guarantee that any of her weapons will still be there — not likely. She’s thinking these things over as she walks through the SHIELD facility, and she ultimately finds herself on the range.

And of course, Clint Barton is there, sitting on the edge of a table and nonchalantly firing arrows downrange, perfect accuracy, every time.

After a moment, she notices that Agent Coulson is also there, leaning against the side of the shooting booth, as relaxed as she’s ever seen the man — she didn’t know that he ever loosened his tie. He’s talking to Barton in a low voice, possibly naming targets as Barton shoots — the cadence looks about right. Bucky can’t quite hear, but the affection and the ease comes through his tone just fine. He actually laughs, softly when Barton mutters something back, mock-exasperated.

Barton looks up as she comes closer, and he says, “Hey, look who escaped the clutches of Medical!”

Coulson has his hands tucked into the pockets of his slacks, his jacket open, clearly a man on his way out of the office. He has a briefcase at his feet. Bucky is not stupid enough to believe that it contains paperwork.

“Have you seen Steve?” Coulson asks, quietly, while Barton viciously murders half-a-dozen targets. He sounds concerned, but she’s almost certain that it’s concern for his team — she can respect that. She was part of the Howling Commados, possibly the most ragtag bunch of soldiers ever put into the same squad and pointed in the Nazis’ direction — she knows how important it is to make sure that your team is settled and running smoothly. If everyone is allowed to think for themselves, you’d damn well better be sure that they are thinking.

She thinks about Steve Rogers, all too earnest, so achingly young, and she says, “Yeah,” and she does him the courtesy of not giving him a fake smile, because they’re sorting things out — they will, but it’s not done yet.

Coulson accepts this with a hum, and lets her alone.

“Listen, about Natasha,” says Barton, after a little while. “I know you guys have some history but you got to understand, she’s—”

“What Agent Barton is trying to tell you is,” Coulson cuts in, smoothly, “Just because she’s had sex with you, that doesn’t mean she loves you — or even that she particularly likes you.”

Clint huffs. “Yeah, but I think even I could’ve been more tactful than that.”

Bucky stares at Coulson, thinks of the Black Widow Project — the Red Room knew, everyone in Department X knew what they were taught to do — then says, suspiciously, “I think it’s a safe bet to say that you’ve read my file.”

Coulson smiles a very bland smile, and says, “Yes.”

“And you didn’t tell him?” she points at Barton, who scowls.

“That part of your file is classified information, Barnes” says Coulson, so deadpan that she knows he’s bullshitting her.

She wonders how the hell they’re going to reconcile that with the fact that her clearance level is just about as low as it can get. “So, you got anything to add?” she asks. Just because she knows the basics about Natalia’s MO — it’s been forty years — doesn’t mean she’s above gathering advice if she can find it.

Coulson watches Barton put three arrows through the same hole, the goddamn show-off, hums thoughtfully and says, “If you hurt her, she’ll probably dismember you, and we’ll never be able to find your body — but I think you already know that.”

Bucky smirks. “That’s assuming you ever bother to look for the body, which, somehow, I don’t think is very likely.”

That gets her a small, sharp smile, at least. Got it in one, says Coulson’s expression.

“You’re underestimating just how thorough SHIELD is,” Clint tells her, voice light. “Habeas corpus is one of the holy tenants of agent training.” He grins with just slightly too much teeth, and adds, with the air of someone making a clever joke, “‘Bodies, or it never happened’. That’s gonna irritate the shit out of Fury.”

There’s a step on the threshold; all three of them turn in concert. Natalia stands in the doorway, with the ready posture of someone knocking on the door to draw attention. 

“There she is,” Clint mutters, and he’s packing away his bow and quiver in the next moment, flicking the clasps on the case closed.

Her expression is professional, blank but pleasant, a softer version of Coulson’s blandness. “Go on ahead,” she says. She holds Bucky’s eyes, though, and ignores when Clint makes a corny “I’m watching you” gesture as they head out.

And then it’s just Bucky and Natalia in the empty range, and Natalia steps in, locks the door behind her, and says, “I want to talk to you.”

***

“You were looking for me.”

“Yeah,” says Bucky. “I need a weapon.”

Natalia says nothing, does nothing, stares her down with a serpentine patience. You can’t make demands like that without some explanation.

Bucky takes the picture of Karpov out of her jacket.

“Agent Coulson is going to flip a table if you stole this from his files,” says Natalia, taking the photo, but there’s an edge to her tone that wasn’t there before, and she’s falling into a softer posture, looser, sliding into the Black Widow’s skin so subtly that the incremental changes are almost imperceptible. The accent means nothing, but the idiom is heavy in Bucky’s ears, too new and too old at the same time. The line of Natalia’s mouth is softening, tellingly.

“Sam Wilson saw that picture on my table,” she tells Natalia, watching her catch the meaning. “He wants to know if we’re going to move in soon.”

Natalia hands the photo back, says, “And of course, the answer is yes.” There’s an ironic twist to her smile, but it’s the wrong way around, too lush to be trustworthy. It invites Bucky to recant, says, clearly, There’s no reason to rush off like this.

Bucky meets her eyes steadily. “You told me to tell you,” she says. “This is me, telling you.” And it makes Natalia’s expression go blank and hard again, but at least this time, it’s honest.

She says, “Do you even know where the fuck he is?”

No, Bucky has no idea where to find Karpov, to tell the truth. But there have been hints and clues in her dreams. “I don’t,” she admits, “But I’ve got an idea about that, too.”

Natalia gives her a hard look, right through her, but it’s all for show — they both know that Bucky is going, no matter what Natalia says. All that remains to be seen is whether or not Natalia is going to help her.

“Of all the unwise things I have ever done in my life,” says Natalia, “This will almost certainly end up being the worst.”

Bucky smirks, because it’s acquiescence and she knows it.

“Idiot,” Natalia sighs, epithet or admonition. She turns for the door to the armory, says, “Okay, come on,” over her shoulder, the only kind of invitation that Bucky was aiming for.

***

The only weapon that Natalia takes from the armory is a SHIELD-issue knife — it’s a nice, black steel with serrations near the hilt pretty standard military stuff, a good length for sawing just about anything, from rope to enemy’s hands, and weighted to be comfortable in a fight.

This knife she hands to Bucky, along with the sheath. Then, when no one is paying them any attention, she disappears into the air duct, and beckons for Bucky to follow.

This is Bucky’s least favorite part of infiltration, small spaces and crawling through someone else’s vents. At least Natalia is going ahead of her.

They tumble out into the hallway, and Natalia strides past a few doors, normal as you please, before she stops in front of one and picks the lock in under five seconds. Bucky watches the entire production with an odd sense of mounting familiarity, nostalgia. She knows that there’s a key that will fit just fine in that lock, but the extra tumbler will cause the knob to screech and creak in an unholy sound when the lock is turned, that stepping anywhere but directly on the threshold will set off some nasty trap, poison, it used to be, but it might be electricity nowadays.

It’s a closet of a room, bed at one end, and a lady’s bureau at the other. There are weapons mounted on the walls, stacked neatly under the bed, racked in the thin space between bureau and wall. Natalia nods an invitation toward the wall of assault rifles, and says, “I’ll come back.” She’s out the door before Bucky can even ask where she’s going.

The weaponry decision is fairly simple — standard M9, nothing fancy, just in case they need to ad lib for ammo — and a Glock to go into each shoulder holster, for pretty much the same reasons. She’d like to take the SIGs, but she knows that Natalia won’t carry those.

She could spend a whole day trying out all of these guns. There are a few anomalies — dart guns, a bazooka, a few machine guns that Bucky traces her fingertips over covetously, though she knows they’re impractical.

The bed is a double, neatly made, and crisp as if it hasn’t been used for some time. The sheets are black and a deep purple, possibly to cover blood and dirt stains. There are only the thinnest air ducts opening into this room — it is very secure. She recognizes a safe room when she sees one. The angle on the door is very good; turn the bed on its side, and you’d be able to hole up for a while, so long as the ammo didn’t run out.

It’s the bureau on the other side of the room draws her attention, though. There’s are drawers full of balms and powders, jars of every color, paints and creams, a baffling array of scents and shapes. In front of the mirror, there is a long row of lipstick, shading from pink to orange to red to deep oxblood. Bucky opens them all, one at a time, and inspects the colors. She slips one, intense, opaque red, into her pocket and leaves everything else exactly as she found it. There are pencils of black and deep green and white and navy blue. There are three different kinds of face powder.

Natalia comes back as she’s poking at a canister of very fine glitter.

She has civilian clothes for both of them.

“We’re going to do recon,” she says, while Bucky changes clothes, which is how Bucky knows that she talked to Agent Coulson, at least, but if they’re still going to investigate, then that will have to be good enough for Bucky.

“Coulson.” It’s a question, actually, but Natalia is determined not to make this easy.

“Yes?” she says, as she’s hovering between the M9 and an AK47. She makes a little moue at the SR-25, still sitting on its rack — Bucky hadn’t known that it was up for grabs, or she’d have taken it.

“He’s kind of a bastard.”

“Yes,” agrees Natalia, “He is.”

“But—?” Bucky winces at her own leading tone. She might as well have just asked, Do you really trust him? Does he trust you?

“Oh, I’m sorry,” drawls Natalia, “Did you think I made up the off-book speech? Just for you?”

Oh. Bucky smirks. “And Barton?”

There’s an almost palpable drop in the temperature of the room, and when Natalia turns around, she’s so serious, she’s stopped lying completely. “He needed someone to understand,” says Natalia. She isn’t smiling anymore — she looks grave, cold and cruel, terrible as the winter, honest and unbearably beautiful.

I owe him(?), she doesn’t say. He’s mine.

She holds Bucky’s eyes until she nods in acknowledgement. She doesn’t ask about Steve, though. Even when Bucky makes her wait while she inspects the final contents of the bag Natalia brought — another change of clothes, a wallet of cash and false memories, a dark blue uniform of some kind. She folds it back into the bag without a word.

***

By the time they get to the place where Sam was taken, it’s full dark and the only light is coming from the stars and a tiny crescent of waning moon. 

The manager of the motel where they get a cheap room gives Bucky a long, mistrustful look —ironically, Natalia — whose face has been plastered over poster and the national news — passes easily, wearing a dull, mindless look of the perpetually bored.

Bucky takes the first shower, stripping off the borrowed clothes. Afterwards, she examines herself in the mirror — her hair is getting longer, it’s curling softly around the crest of her cheekbones, covering her ears, brushing her shoulders. She fluffs it up, tries to decide if she looks better that way, invitingly vulnerable or dangerously weak. A moment later, she scoffs at her own posturing — no amount of long, wavy hair and doe eyes could possibly counter her square shoulders, the solid muscle of her back and legs, the smallness of her breasts or the angular sharpness of her features. There are scars all across the left side of her body, twisting ropey lines emerging from the place where her metal arm meet her shoulder. They’re all from her latest misadventure, she knows. They’ll be gone in a few months.

There was some debate, when Department X first dug her out of the ice, on whether she would be given over to the Black Widow Project — her future was uncertain enough that she received the first round of whatever chemical mix they gave to the Black Widow candidates — something that made a handful of cosmetic changes — erased old scars, enhanced the color of her eyes, the fineness of her hair, made her skin smooth and supple, uncracking, even in the stress of the rough Russian winter. It wasn’t useful, not to Bucky.

She catches herself tracing the bend of her elbow, where, before the Red Room, she had three pinprick scars, where Captain America had ripped Zola’s IVs out of her arm, in a grungy HYDRA base in France. The skin there now is perfectly smooth. She shakes her head, wraps the towel around her body and turns away from the mirror.

When she picks up her discarded clothes, though, the tube of lipstick that she took from Natalia’s stash falls out. Bucky catches it before it can clatter on the tiled floor.

It’s called “Diabolique”, and it’s a little worn, but it goes on slick and smooth, better than any lipstick she’s ever worn before, and when she looks at herself in the mirror again, she looks— she looks like herself.

The click of the doorknob draws her attention, and Natalia is standing there, head tilted to one side, and she says, “You’re lucky I like you. That color is limited edition.” And she’s so level — the words are just right, and without the layer of deception, they hit Bucky somewhere in the vicinity of her heart.

She puts her things on the counter beside the sink and steps into Natalia’s space, leans down and kisses her hard, and when she pulls back, there’s a smear of red on her mouth, stark against her pale skin, and Natalia bares her teeth — doesn’t bother to mask it as a smile. 

“Yeah,” says Bucky, a little breathless. “I think it looks better on you, doll. You want it back?”

Natalia kisses her again, in lieu of an answer, flicks open the fastenings on her clothes, and goes easily when Bucky pushes her towards the bed.

It’s slower, this time, all the promises that they’ll never make, and they’ll never believe, anyway. 

Natalia yields wherever Bucky touches her, skin and flesh and gentleness that is so completely undeserved that Bucky has to force herself to match it. 


Natalia doesn’t flinch when she runs her hands across Bucky’s collarbone, over already-fading scars, her shoulders flesh and metal — she doesn’t know Bucky’s body any other way. It’s almost a relief. 

Natalia fits her hands around the slight swells of Bucky’s breasts, hmming thoughtfully, but she seems to remember the appropriate combination of her mouth and her fingers to make Bucky arch under her, gasp out, “Hell, yes,” and twist her hand in the sheets to avoid crushing anything. Natalia plucks at her nipples, uses her teeth just were the curve of breast meets Bucky’s ribs, it’s going to leave a mark. Bucky twines her foot around the back of Natalia's heel, pressing into the tendon, pinning her there and thrusting her hips upwards, clenches her thighs around Natalia's leg, panting, unable to help it.

Natalia's breasts are pressed comfortably in the region of Bucky’s stomach, soft and warm, and they sway temptingly when she pulls up, gracefully disentangles their legs, and starts to work her way down Bucky’s body, her mouth a slick promise, as she slides her fingers up the inside of Bucky’s thigh. 



This time, they take their time, and in the end, Bucky rests her head against the hollow of Natalia’s hip.

She doesn’t ask about the last person who saw Nata like this, though she knows — or she thinks she knows — that it was Clint Barton. She traces the muscles of Nata’s thighs, and she says, “You let him think he was your hero.”

There’s no question of who she means, and Nata hums quietly, runs her fingers through the tangled curls of Bucky’s hair, says, “He saved me.”

Which can only mean one thing — yes.



In the end, she falls asleep still wound around Nata’s body, and she does not remember her dreams upon waking.

***

In the morning, they drive out to the castle-mansion. All that’s left is a smoking ruin, though the official cordons are still there, awaiting rebuilding or a proper demolition, to raze the place so something new can be built. The wall that surrounds the property is still intact, and most of the orchard remains untouched. The apples are ripening, and the smell of them permeates the air. This variety is pale yellow-skinned, and the hang heavy on the boughs. Here and there is a barren cherry tree.

There is an orchard in Bucky’s dreams. Natalia looks askance at the orchard, but all Bucky can do is hand over her rifle, and approach the largest apple tree. It is near the far edge of the orchard, close enough to the house that it should have burned, or it could have, and the area around it is scorched, but it’s growing fine, green and healthy, fruit in its branches, enticingly firm-fleshed and gleaming. Bucky hauls herself into the branches, ignoring Nata’s protests.

“What the fuck are you doing?” Natalia slings the rifle over her shoulder, but she doesn’t climb into the tree — she wants to be on the ground, with her hands on the gun. Bucky was sort of counting on that. She knows that one of them had better have both hands free.

The crisp autumnal breeze ruffles Bucky’s hair, rustles the leaves, and makes the apples sway. There’s a shimmering in the air, just to her left, the kind of optical trick that can only be seen out of the corner of her eye. Magic, Agent Coulson had said. Teleportation, Sam Wilson had told her.

“Those trackers SHIELD’s got on me,” Bucky calls down to Natalia, “Are they any good?”

Natalia doesn’t look up, scanning the surrounding area for potential threats, doing her job, but her shoulders tense up. “The best,” she replies, softly.

Bucky lines up so she’ll have a clear shot to the odd shimmer in the air, clear of branches. “Will they work through magic?” she calls.

Natalia’s head snaps up, eyes finding Bucky even through the mass of foliage, and she says, “Don’t you fucking dare,” and she sprints for the tree, maybe to stop Bucky.

But it’s much too late, and Bucky says, “Come and find me, doll,” and launches herself through the portal.



.Part VII.
She dreams of blood and fire, of ravens and war, and she opens her eyes in a huge stone hall, and the marble under her feet is white shot through with gold, brilliant and stinging as the glare of light off fresh snow.

At the head of the hall there is a dias, and atop that dias is a throne, lavishly appointed in red velvet and white furs. And the man sitting on the throne is Vasily Karpov, king of the Red Room, emperor of Department X, master of every last puppet the combined chemical projects of the Solviet labs turned out — or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that he was once Vasily Karpov, since Karpov should be decades in the ground.

It doesn’t matter. She scans the hall — empty but for the two of them — and launches herself towards the throne without a second thought.


The man on the throne is thick-skinned and hale, pale complexion turned rosy with stolen health, blond hair and piercing grey wolf-eyes and a smile that is all strong white teeth, more menace than humor. The man himself is more like a caricature of humanity than an actual person — the usurper to the throne, royalty bought by blood and cunning. The only thing missing from this picture is a crown.


“You found me,” says the Kotschei, his eyes brilliant burning with twisted pride. “My sharpest girl, you found me. You came back to me.”


Jean grits her teeth at my girl, but she lets it pass, says, “I want you to make me beautiful.”

“Is that what you came back for?” the Kotschei laughs, “This power was not enough?”

“Like Natalia and the others,” Jean says, hating herself for it, but knowing that this is a reason he will have no trouble believing. “I want the power you gave them. The power to tear out a man’s heart with a look, to enchant with a word.”

The Kotschei tilts his head, “And what will you offer me, if I agree? What could you possibly possess to interest me? Mind you, I may yet decline, and you may yet fail to learn the necessary skills. It is not merely a question of chemicals, my sharpest girl, but a question of talent.”

“I wouldn’t ask if I doubted myself,” Jean replies, “As to what I can offer you—

“Well I came back, didn’t I? I was your best, and I could be better.”

“I have ways of ensuring your loyalty, my girl. and you came back to me. Something better.”

Jean smirks, “I’m offering you a hell of a lot. What more do you want?” She knows the answer.


His guards are also once-human parodies, bulging with muscle and skin, wearing mismatched cloaks and armor that does nothing to aid the illusion of humanity, faces that have no business pretending humanity at all. They carry strange weapons that she cannot make sense of, blades and guns and tridents and things that look like farm implements, which she cannot name.




.Part VIII. Epilogue, kinda (the only part worth reading)

There was a movie, Stark had said.

He hadn’t said that it was entirely fiction, full of imagined events and missing a few crucial characters. Bucky figures that Dernier wouldn’t have much missed being in such a terrible production anyway. He hadn’t said it was new, either — slick effects, more splashy and exciting than the reality had ever looked. Instead of Bucky, there’s a short, pretty actress who everyone calls Jean Barnes, whose hands are tiny on the rifle she carries.

“They got a lot of things wrong,” says Steve, settling next to her, as the characters shout at each other over the sound of gunfire, crouched in their foxholes. Onscreen, the too-pretty actress playing Jean fists her hand in Captain America’s uniform and plants one on him, right there in the middle of a firefight. “I’m not sure they even talked to soldiers,” Steve says, wryly, “Let alone anyone who knew what the Howlers were like.”

“I hear they asked you.” Stark had said that too, with a secretive smirk that she hadn’t understood until the young girl onscreen — tow-headed, adorably gap-toothed — had ducked her head and blushed when she shook hands with the skinny boy who she had just rescued from a back alley fight.

Steve narrows his eyes at the movie playing out on the screen. “They asked,” he tells her. “It was — it was just after the Chitauri, the mess with Loki.” The scene playing out is entirely made up of Jean and Peggy standing too close to each other, having a verbal slapfight over who is gonna get into Steve’s pants. “I was still— I couldn’t,” says Steve, softly. “Everything was raw. I missed you.”

The fight never happened. Peggy never told Bucky to back off, never insinuated that Bucky was only looking to add her best friend to her list of conquests. Bucky tries not to hear the I miss you still, hanging in the air between them, but it’s impossible.

“Of course, when I saw this, I kinda wish I had — I couldn’t have imagined how wrong they would get it,” Steve says, too fast, too lightly. They’ve given Gabe Jones a rifle instead of a machine gun, and he’s not even in the same scene as the tank, let alone in the driver’s seat where he belongs.

“Yeah,” mutters Bucky. The guy playing Steve is not bad — a little too magnanimous, but she’s never met anyone else who really caught on that Steve has a mean streak, and it runs deep. (One time, Bucky’d run into a sergeant that wouldn’t take no for an answer, and once Steve caught wind of it, he made the soldier apologize, loomed over him the whole time he was talking — and that was after Bucky decked him.)

“It’s not like you’d ever have—” Steve starts, and cuts himself off abruptly, and Bucky turns to stare at him.

“Not like I’d’ve what?”

Steve rubs the back of his neck, doesn’t meet her eyes. “You knew what I was like, as a— before the war,” he says, as if that explains everything.

“Before the war—” Bucky breathes. “You were...”

She remembers before the war. She remembers being hungry all the time, remembers forcing stolen pills down Steve’s throat. She remembers his hands around her wrists in the dark, how they used to be so bony, but his long fingers could easily fit around her wrists. And she remembers the way that he looked at her, when she spent an hour in front of the little mirror that he used to shave in, salvaged from another tenement when the occupant died, and propped in the empty frame. She’d curled her unmanageable dark hair with hot rollers, burnt her hand on the stove, swore doing it, too. She’d put on a dress that had belonged to her mother, that bagged unconvincingly up top, and put on a thick coat of precious red lipstick, slick and dark. He’d stared at her, shocked, stunned, and for one bright moment she’d thought he was impressed, but when she held out her hand, he jerked back, got up, shaking the crease back into his pants, and said, “Come on. I’m sure there’s a crowd of unsuspecting guys for you to charm tonight.”

Her gloves were the only familiar thing, since she wore them every time she left the house, covering up the cracked, scarred, callused pads of her fingers, her blistered palms, from doing every odd job she could get. (The bruises on her knuckles from chasing after her best friend, every single time.)

“Yeah,” Steve says, “Not a great look for anyone, I think. You don’t just forget that kind of thing.”

Bucky stares at him. “What? What’re you talking about?”

“It’s pretty tough to get excited about some kid who threw up on your shoes whenever he got nervous,” Steve says, wryly. “I know it’s not supposed to matter but—”

Bucky grabs for his wrist, hauls his hand out of his lap and holds it up between them. “This, goddamnit,” she says.

“What? Bucky, what’re you talking about?”

“This is what I remember, you moron.” Bucky turns his hand over, traces the lines of his hand until his fingers tremble and spasm around hers. “From before the war —. You used to have these long, bony fingers — big knuckles and narrow palms — you could put your hand around my wrist, easy, you would spend hours sitting in the windowsill when the light was good, and you always had charcoal under your fingernails. This,” she says again, “is what I remember. What I see when I look at you, what I see when you talk about before the war.”

Except even that isn’t quite the truth, since her war wasn’t quite the same as his, since her war wasn’t just one war. Her wars need to be qualified, the Cold War, the Gulf War, the seventy years of war, and when Steve says, before the war, sometimes she sees his too-bright shield, the dull blue-grey-red-white of his uniform, and how the star followed her, in her dreams, through every war she fought without him.

Onscreen, Jean Barnes steps into Captain America’s quarters, looking a lot cleaner than Bucky ever remembers being, in wet old France.

She takes Captain America’s shield from his unresisting hands and puts it at the foot of the bed. She takes his helmet off, buries her hands in his hair — Bucky winces a little at the thought. She kisses him and undoes the buckles of his uniform with sure hands, murmurs, “We could die tomorrow,” as the music swells feelingly, and the camera pans off into the darkness.

And the next scene is the train, speeding through the mountain pass. Steve grabs the remote and flicks it off in a rush. Silence and darkness cloak the living room.

“They don’t mess around, do they?” Bucky mutters.

Steve laughs, dry and small, but doesn’t say anything in reply.

“You ever think about it, though?”

Any other time, Bucky is pretty sure that she wouldn’t get anything but flustered stuttering out of Steve — but that’s another thing that people forget — that he was smart even before they enhanced him, that he was sharp before he went to war, that he’s always had a smart mouth.

“Sure, Buck,” Steve says, into the darkness, easy. “Three-week old pants, shirts we’d sweated through and bled on for days, cold mud in every crevice known to man. How could I have resisted.”

Another time, it might have hurt, but she can hear the slight edge in his voice, the bitterness that’s regret, not mocking. “I saved your life,” Bucky says, feeling the helpless smile start at the corners of her mouth, “A few times. That oughta count for something.”

“It would have,” Steve says, and he’s smiling, Bucky can hear it, “It would’ve made me wild, if any of those times I had actually needed saving.”

This time, the silence that comes between them is easier, light, familiar. Steve nudges his shoulder up against hers, pulls up a different movie, something called Monsters, Inc., and for the first time, Bucky feels like maybe they can go back to the way they used to be.

***

Here’s the other thing about the movie: it’s only recently been revealed that Bucky was not a dude. The original Captain America movies showed Bucky as some young kid who tagged along out of Camp LeHeigh. Or they showed Bucky as Steve’s friend from the orphanage, just not as herself. And then, in about the early eighties, it’s revealed that Bucky was a lady — or well, that she was female, anyway. Then there was an explosion of documentaries and whatnot.

The HC — what was left of them at the time, which included Peggy and Gabe and Jacques and Jim Morita and Dum-Dum, were all hounded for interviews.

They knew that Bucky and Steve had been close, but they had been clear that it wasn’t like that. Peggy especially was clear that it wasn’t like that. She’d been asked a question of jealousy, and she’d said, "of course," and then, she’d looked at the interviewer, and burst out laughing.

"Oh dear, you meant was I jealous of Bucky’s relationship with Steve? I’m sorry, that wasn’t the question that I answered at all." She was jealous of Bucky’s freedom, the way she’d been on the field all the time, she didn’t have the constant nag of powerfully connected family in London. She didn’t have the lingering concern that the only reason they’d kept her on was for her name, for her connections and her wealth. She was jealous that Bucky was a hero, flat out, no more letters.

They were asked to speculate on why Bucky and Steve were never together — the word homosexual was never mentioned, but it was heavily implied.

Dernier had huffed and he’d said, "listen, if you are talking about why they never fucked, the answer is simple — she knew him when he was a different person, and she was still hung up on that Steve Rogers. She loved him, but so much of it was the left over loyalty and love for the tiny little kid that she’d tucked into bed back in Brooklyn — he never would have taken her pity. The Captain had a strange kind of pride," Dernier said. "Honest criticism, even mercy he would take any day, but pity, never. And her love would have looked too much like pity."

But of course, they never believed any of what the HC told them — it wasn’t as good a story.

There are tapes of the interview with Peggy, where she talks about the nights she and Bucky went out on the town. Peggy smiles her way through stories of the nights when they’d compete for a certain gentleman’s attention, or the night when Bucky taught everyone in the club to dance some American dance, and when the interviewer asks "wasn’t it dangerous for two women on their own in those towns?" Peggy gives him a look that says clearly what an idiot she thinks he is, and she says, "Do you think so? In those days, we were the two best shots in the whole of France, and yes, I’m aware that that has very little to do with defending oneself in close quarters, but darling," Peggy says, her tone so condescending that it made the interviewer cringe, "I never trusted any man more than I trusted my own right hook, and Bucky Barnes was knocking out back-alley bullies before she ever shipped out. We never had any trouble"










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charybdis

July 2015

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