"I have a lead."
Characters (this chapter): Natasha Romanoff, Bucky Barnes
Content Warnings: Memory issues, body horror
She rolls her eyes.
“That’s not what I asked for.”
“But it’s what you’re looking for.” Someone’s groomed him. His clothing is clean, if not new. His hair is tied back, out of his eyes, and he isn’t as scruffy, though there are a few missed patches underneath his chin. Possible he shaved himself. Possible he has not checked in with a handler since the collapse of S.H.I.E.L.D.
Possible, but not likely.
“And what about the mission you said you want me to end?” She watches the way his muscles tense when she’s behind him, tough knots coiling up and down his back. He’s more alert. Twitchy. “Operation: Orphan. Did you acquire anything else? Something I can use?” She’s surprised he’s lightly armed, only three knives, and one small handgun, with limited ammunition. “Base of operations. Mission head. Optimal result.” She steps back into his line of sight, and he latches on to her like a lifeline.
“I have been instructed not to disclose that information.”
She crosses her arms.
“Is there anything you can disclose?”
He reaches into a concealed pocket, and she prepares to take him down, but the device he has in his hand is unthreatening.
“A global positioning system.”
She examines it.
“It only goes back a few days.”
“The logs refresh automatically.” He licks his lips. “I don’t want it.”
She takes it, examining the machinery. It’s familiar technology. She rubs her thumb against the metal casing.
“Where did you find it?”
He rolls up the side of his shirt. There’s a recently sealed scab at the bottom of his torso, just over the hem of his pants. The cut is crude, gouged out too much of his muscle along with the GPS implant. It’s not healing clean, she can smell infected tissue, but judging from the state of his body, the serum will take care of it eventually.
“It will confirm my location. Over the last week.”
He doesn’t look finished. She watches him tremble, and articulates her words for their maximum effect.
“Tell me what you came here to say, Soldier.”
His jaw is tight, but he forces the words through his lips.
“I know what you are looking for is in the Bolshoi chapter.”
“You know because you listened while I interrogated Rumlow.”
He shakes his head.
“I know because I interrogated him. After.”
Bad news for Agent Rumlow. Though, she’s not entirely sure she believes the Soldier isn’t lying.
“Then you know I’m not looking. What he told me was a fairytale. I want facts, not fictions.”
“The storytellers are not a myth.” She waits for him to continue, and his mouth works like he hasn’t had anything to drink. “I know where one of them is. Not that one. But there are others. Find one, and you can find the trail."
“Good of you to tell me. But I thought you wanted my help.”
“It’s a trade. You find what you are looking for. Then you destroy the operation.”
He’s got a nervous twitch she watches out of the corner of her eye.
“You don’t want me to help you, first?”
His jaw clenches. “Incompatible.”
“That’s not a ‘no’.” He doesn’t like the way she’s watching him, but he’s not running. “You could lie. Try to get me to stop the operation, promise you’ll give me the information I’m asking for after it’s done.” She wouldn’t fall for it, of course, but she’s surprised by this play. She’d expected him to be more juvenile in his approach.
He struggles before he answers.
“I…” he makes a tight noise in the back of his throat. “I can’t do that. I have to do this. This way.”
“Very well.” She tilts her head to the side. “If you know so much, then tell me. What am I looking for?”
He stares at her, barely moving.
“Who you are.”
She doesn’t nod, but he accepts her admission all the same.
“Do you know why?”
He takes a halting step back.
“I know what your handlers were willing to tell you. I know,” he waves his hand around the studio, and the reflection of the space between his gloved hand and the sleeve of his shirt flashes in the mirror behind him. “I know, too, some of what their lies were like. But you lived it. You probably have all the answers.” He looks back at her, steely now. “But you’re looking for them.”
She nods. He grinds his teeth.
She waits. He closes his eyes.
"The memories are inaccessible." He opens his eyes again. The way he struggles is interesting, like he has a personal stake in her memories. Merits further examination.
"Is that why you..." he gestures to the room. It smells like waxy floor cleaner. If she reaches, she can make it smell like bleach and slick concrete and a different kind of sweat, the kind that is laced with adrenaline and blood and tension and stinking of fear.
Bodies carry memories. Even bodies like theirs. That's what he's asking.
She considers her next move. The secret she carries, it’s nothing that isn’t in her file, for those who care to look. And he’s been alive for a long, long time. He might not have been active in 1989, but he might remember it. And she’s not ashamed, and it’s not personal, not really. Just because she’s never told anyone- no one has ever asked about it. It looks like a birthmark. Why would anyone ask? Decisively, she rolls up her shirt, past the bullet wound, though she smiles at him as she reveals that. No flicker of recognition there. Gesture will read as flirtatious. He will have been trained to ignore such gestures. Two and one quarter inches above the puckered scar, towards the center of her ribcage, are three dots. A triangle.
“Judging by the degradation of the marks, these are approximately twenty years old. This type of ink was popular in East Berlin before the wall came down. I must have needed to improvise, because it’s the variety of azure primarily used in penknives. The uneven incisions match that indication. It would have been inconvenient, to injure myself like this, it probably did not involve a lot of forethought, but because of those conditions I’m able to pinpoint, with reasonable accuracy, the location. Somewhere wealthy, and private. A study, or an important office. I was not allowed to make another one.”
He takes a step closer, reaching for the marks with his flesh hand. She lets him. He telegraphs every movement, and she observes, waiting, planning, judging his intent with every step. But he only touches it. His skin is cool; the exertion must have heated her body past its normal temperature.
“You were five years old.”
“More or less. I started young.”
So insistent on that age. That part of her file has been redacted, the record intentionally imprecise. He must know, must recall something. Where she was at five years old. She watches his eyes, waiting for him to give himself away, betray his next move. Natasha is almost disappointed when he doesn’t attack.
Instead, he reaches for his metal arm, rolling up his sleeve. When he pulls back against his wrist, contorting it so the joint stretches almost beyond what it can withstand, she sees a few tiny markings there. Dots. No: braille. Inverse, but recognizable. Coordinates, etched in Unified English Braille, hidden somewhere no technician would think to look, not without cause. He surely never gave them cause.
“It’s very far north.”
She knows that place. It was well-publicized a little over a year ago. The less-than final resting place of Captain Rogers.
“Yeah. Really far. Cold, too.”
He lets go of his wrist, and takes a step backwards. His features contort to something cynical and canny, an expression that resembles those in the war photos she's seen and memorized.
“Do me a favor, and don’t arrest me tomorrow?”
Her brow twitches.
“Are you going to make me?”
He sighs, not matching her levity.
“I don’t intend to.” He licks his lips, staring at the floor. “I don’t… want him to see me.”
He means Rogers.
“Good. I don’t want him to see you either.” He perks up at that, and she memorizes this new expression, wide-eyed and lips parted. “Did you think I was going to turn you over to him?”
He nods, slow.
“Why won’t you?”
She clicks her lips.
“Let’s just say I don’t intend to, and leave it at that?”
He gives another shaky nod. He reaches into a pocket inside his coat, revealing a crumbled up receipt. He hands it to her. The paper is thin. She analyses the address, but it's a Starbucks only a few blocks away, time stamped from just before she arrived at the ballet. So, he knew about the appointment, possibly had to wait, possibly wasn't following her up to that point. Possible he just wants her to think this. Unlikely he will return to the same place. And he paid in cash.
She turns the paper over. Coordinates. In China. A trail of storytellers, leading to the Bolshoi.
“Can I go now?”
That’s odd. She jerks her chin towards the door.
He leaves, and she watches him, listening to his footsteps. Her feet are bleeding. The CD is still rotating in the radio, and the speakers are quiet. When she knows he’s gone, she turns it off. Burns the receipt. She examines the GPS in her palm. She’ll have to leave it somewhere annoying. Public transit a good option, but the risk of civilian casualties is too great. She could disable it, but that would call too much attention to the fact that the Soldier is going a little bit rogue. She decides to bury it. In Arlington National Cemetery. She hopes someone in Hydra shares her sense of humor.
It might just make up for the fact that this is another good location, gone.
Thank you all so much for reading!
For those curious about the ballet terms:
Coupé - Cut
Temps lié - Time linked
Dégagé - Disengaged
Demi-plié - Semi-bent
Fermé - Closed
Brisé - Broken
She follows the steps faithfully, but the terms in her head don't 100% synch up to how she's moving in real-time.