“You are only alive because Steve Rogers doesn’t want you dead. You’re going to tell me exactly what you’re here for. If I don’t like your answer, I’m going to break your neck.”
Characters (this chapter): Natasha Romanoff, Bucky Barnes.
Content Warnings: Canon-typical violence.
Rating: Teen & Up.
The Soldier glares up at her, and she can see him calculating the tactics available to disarm her. He could do it, given time. She’s not going to let him have the opportunity. It’s nothing personal. She’s just not in the mood to get punched in the face by a cybernetic metal fist.
“I came for you.”
His voice is calm and even. He’s not even out of breath. She doesn’t move.
“On whose orders?”
His jaw works, tight muscles clenching underneath his cheeks.
“I need you.”
There’s tension in between his eyebrows. She looks for the signs of a lie, but it’s no use. He’s been trained by the same people that trained her, for longer than she’s been alive. He knows how to hide his expressions. Even in pain. She grimaces, trying to speak to him in words he might understand.
“Am I your mission?”
“Mission: Defend Hydra.” It’s an automatic response. He closes his eyes briefly, and when he reopens them he doesn’t look away from her. “I need you.”
She presses against his windpipe. He doesn’t wince.
His breath is wheezy, but he’s still not flinching.
“There’s an operation. With many missions. You need to stop it.”
She eases up on the pipe.
His breathing is even again, as if it was never obstructed in the first place.
“I know what you are looking for.”
She resists the urge to roll her eyes.
“I’ve had enough cryptic assistance from Hydra assassins. Believe me, I was one, I know.” She does another once-over, cataloguing his weapons. A few shiny things here and there, an impressive collection of knives, but nothing she isn’t familiar with. “If I let you up, are you going to try to kill me?”
The Winter Soldier shakes his head.
She leans back, then stands. He rises slowly, taking an inventory of the damage she’d inflicted. He doesn’t try to remove the knife from his metal shoulder. If he had, she would have subdued him. Instead he looks blankly at her, blinking slowly.
“Steve Rogers doesn’t want me dead?”
She crosses her arms.
“You dragged him out of the Potomac. I guess he’s dumb enough to think that means something?”
He nods, staring at something past her. She begins a more thorough examination of his appearance, letting herself analyze the details she’d ignored in favor of handing his ass to him. He hasn’t shaved, or been shaved, in days. His hair is mostly hidden beneath a skin-tight black cap, but the strands peeking out behind his ears are long and tangled. He’s pale, probably caused by low blood iron content, but otherwise healthy. There are injuries, but they are healing. His reaction time is good (not as good as it should be, but good), so he’s probably not drugged or in withdrawal. Wide-eyed and strong, heartbeat steady, despite increased stress levels. He swallows, testing his larynx. Shell-shocked, that’s what Rogers would say.
“I do not want Steve Rogers to die.” He looks up at her. He has bright blue eyes.
“You should tell him yourself. Save him a lot of time and aggravation.”
The Soldier grimaces.
“You almost did a good job killing him. I guess that was part of your mission?”
He keeps staring. She assumes he does this because he doesn’t know how to respond. It’s not direct enough.
“Was killing Captain Rogers part of your mission, to protect Hydra?”
“Yes,” he grunts.
“Why haven’t you killed him then? Why did you save him instead?”
He winces, as if expecting a blow that’s not coming. She can use that aversion.
His eyes are shut tight. “I disobeyed,” he whispers, his voice raspy and thin.
She nods. Whatever this is, she needs to take advantage of it. She knows what Rogers believes, that the man in front of her is the same man he knew in the forties. She also knows he’s wrong. This hollow-eyed ghost might share some DNA with James Buchanan Barnes, but they are not the same person. This man can take a punch, can take a lot more than a punch. His machinery is damaged (read: whatever protocols involved in brainwashing him need to be implemented or updated, his combat performance is sluggish and unimaginative), and his equipment needs repair (the arm, a sensitive instrument compromised by the water, but also an old injury in his right leg, and muscular distress caused by prolonged weightlifting is evident in his back when he walks), but he is still dangerous.
She watches his reactions.
“What is this operation you want me to stop?”
He stares at the space on the floor between his feet.
“Operation: Orphan.” His voice rumbles. “Prevent duplication by destroying the original model.” He recites. “The reproduction of the Orphan Project will be a great service to Hydra.”
She rests her hand above one of her knives. It’s concealed, but when he looks up at her Natasha knows he recognizes the gesture for what it is.
“Do you know any more?”
The lines around his eye grow tight, and his throat works for sixteen seconds before he shakes his head.
“I have been ordered to retain sensitive information. I cannot divulge the details of the Operation or any associated missions with enemies.”
She raises her eyebrow.
“Am I an enemy? Little old me?”
His lips quaver. She doesn’t think it’s an act, but that doesn't mean it's not for her benefit.
“You have been classified an enemy combatant. Natasha Romanoff, known associate of Steven Rogers. Skilled and deadly, command avoid engaging unless required. Parameters of engagement include attack or direct threat to mission integrity. Under no circumstances should the subject be given access to sensitive information. Loyalty currently undetermined.”
“And here I thought they’d want you to shoot me on sight. That’s almost sweet.” She leans down, looking him in the eye. He doesn’t look away, though she can tell it’s a struggle not to. He’s definitely been let loose for too long. “Why do you need me to stop this Operation, Soldier? Is this a command, or something else?”
His jaw is tight.
She nods for encouragement.
“And why did you come to me to stop it? Did your Commander send you?”
“Nobody sent me to stop it,” his breathing is slightly erratic. Natasha doesn’t give any ground, but she lets her body get ready to fight him off again. Sluggish and one-armed or no, the Soldier has the advantage of height and weight.
“Then why did you come? Why do you need me to stop Operation: Orphan?”
He glances away, then looks back.
“I needed to contact you.” He stops. “No one else will stop it. Steve Rogers won’t stop it. No one else is capable. You are capable. You will do it.”
His programming is interfering with their conversation. It’s annoying. She leans back, shifting her weight to her heels, assessing him. There’s only so much she can gain from talking to him directly. It would be useful to tail him, see where he goes and who he speaks to. If there’s even anyone left for him to speak to (speaking: unlikely to be part of his duties, outside of giving reports and confirming the receipt of orders). It’s not that she doubts her abilities. It’s that she doubts his. He might not have the ability to distinguish between what he’s been ordered to say and what he’s choosing to say. Would he even know if what he’s saying is untrue?
She makes a decision.
“All right. I’ll help you end this mission.”
His eyes go a little wide, and she thinks an ordinary person would probably feel bad for him; his facial expression is one normally associated with lost puppies.
“I need more information. Anything you can get. Hard copies would be best, but I can work with names, dates, codewords, manifests, any information you’ll be able to deliver without breaching your protocols.”
“I will deliver anything not specified by the Mission Head as sensitive.”
She reaches for his hand. After a few seconds, he figures out what she wants him to do, and takes it. She lifts him to his feet.
“Monday. 16:00 hours, Franklin Square Park, northwest corner.”
“Northwest corner, 16:00 hours, Franklin Square Park, Monday. Two days from now. Confirmed.”
Natasha squeezes his hand before letting go. She reaches up, and yanks her knife out of his shoulder. It makes an unpleasant noise, but he barely moves.
“Have you eaten anything?”
He looks confused by the question. She reconfigures it.
“When is the last time you ate something?”
The Soldiers' lips fold in on themselves twice before he answers.
“Seventeen hours and twenty-six minutes since last intake.”
The timeline makes sense to her. She walks a few feet away, keeping him in her sights through the mirror beside her. She finds the locker, opening it without needing to think about the combination. There’s no new data, but there is something else.
“Here,” she hands him the candy bar. Goplana, with strawberry filling, because her super secret S.H.I.E.L.D. hacker seems to think Russian candies will have some sort of personal significance to her. They don’t, but Natasha has heard that it is the thought that counts, and the process of accepting and reciprocating the presents seems to make the young woman happy.
The Soldier looks down at the wrapper, lips tracing out the words as he reads.
She watches him as he runs his fingers over the wrapper.
“It tastes sweet. And it has enough calories to quiet your stomach for a few hours.”
He tears the wrapper open, peeling it away, careful to remove it in one piece. He doesn’t spare such delicacy for the chocolate itself; he shoves it in his mouth in one piece, crumbling it up at the end to shove it all inside. He barely chews it before he swallows. She watches, trying to determine whether this is a habit, or something he’s been told to do. It’s unclear, the information sample is too small.
He continues to stand in front of her, silent and waiting.
“You’re dismissed, Soldier.”
That makes him move. He leaves, without watching his back, without assuming (like she would assume) that he’s about to be attacked because he’s left an enemy behind. Natasha waits fourteen minutes before resetting her dislocated right shoulder against the wall.
Natasha considers the wreckage in the locker room and the preceding hallways. Too much DNA to be sampled from it. There is bleach in the laundry room, high-grade stuff. The clean-up process is efficient and familiar, another thing she doesn’t have to think about doing.
The fact that the building is now compromised is inconvenient, but she has backups. She cleans, does a final sweep, and then removes all of her supplies, placing the extra clothes, weapons, ammunition, cash, and falsified identification documents in a canvas laundry bag. There’s nothing to be done for the physical damage to the building, but she chose this gym because of the inattentive management.
It will never be traced back to her.
Thanks for reading!
Things probably aren't going to get any easier for poor Bucky... Your comments are keeping me going! Y'all are the best <3