A dead end. A literal one. (She makes it literal).
Characters (this chapter): Natasha Romanoff, Bucky Barnes
Content Warnings: None
She sends the suit back to Tony. He should understand the gesture as one of gratitude, but just in case she instructs Jarvis to verbally express it. He doesn't mind taking the credit for dismantling a Hydra cell, and this way she won't have to expose her source.
Five days later, she is climbing up the shaft of an out-of-service elevator in an upscale Hong Kong hotel. The wind makes a shallow, barren sound as it whooshes through the hollow metal corridor. She grabs the unstable pipes and braces, the cold steel rough in her hands. It's not a fast ascent, with sparse anchors to support herself and a pervading dampness from the recent rainfall, she has to take cautious steps upward. Natasha reaches the top within her predicted timeframe, prying open a ventilation screen with minimal noise. The soldier, as expected, is already there. She listened to him making the climb hours ago. He's been silent ever since.
His clothing looks fresh, well-fitted, and better suited for the weather (waterproof, light weight, sufficient protection from the wind, dark colors, subtle). He nods in greeting, revealing no response at her timely appearance.
"I saw the explosions."
Her lips quirk. She inclines her head. He's lightly armed. One knife on his belt, another concealed in his boot, strapped to his ankle. One gun, and extra bullets, holstered over his shoulder. Natasha takes out a wipe and rinses her hands, removing the grit and blood left there by the climb.
"I think, by now, the entire world has seen the footage."
He shakes his head. "No, I watched. From a few blocks away. Lot of good vantage points in this city." He smiles. "I wanted to see what you would do."
He gestures to the edge of the roof, and sits down, leaning his back against the short railing. Natasha takes a seat beside him, legs stretched out in front of her. Their boots brush. Her lips twitch, and she doesn't try to discourage the smile that twists across her face.
"You like what you see?"
"It was a good imitation."
She hums. "You've seen Tony in action?"
The soldier shrugs, and the sleeve of his coat whispers against her arm.
"I was briefed."
She has nothing to say to that, and it seems that he is content to let the subject lie. Her own briefing on Tony was sparse. For all that he's led a very public life, there was too much information to sift through, and very little of it useful. After some consideration, Natasha acknowledges that any practical briefing on Tony had to come from her own observations, submitted to S.H.I.E.L.D. So, the soldier's understanding will be colored by her own bias. Requires more data. She dismisses the thought, for now.
The soldier is still solemn when he speaks again, his voice thin.
"Did you get what you needed?"
She clenches the inside of her cheek between her teeth. Still sore. Should have dealt with it while she was in New York. The suit was more important.
"There's a trail. The network limits internal communication, and the storytellers themselves are isolated." The corner of her mouth turns up. "The next step is a visit to North Korea."
His breath escapes in a huff.
"Pain in the ass."
She clicks her tongue.
"No more than expected."
"Let me help?" He licks his lips when she stares at him head on and waits for him to speak. "I can. I'm not- I won't." He closes his mouth, before finally deciding on: "I can help you."
His eyebrows draw together, like he's trying to sort something out. Perhaps he's confused because there's no command that overrides his assistance. Or he might be surprised that he's chosen to offer. Maybe it's something he's been trained to do, look guileless and frail. Natasha remembers those skills, they feel so innate, living underneath the surface of her skin. Doesn't seem like a skill the Soldier would need, not with his build, it would take too much work to be believable. Steve would believe it, good decision, keeping them away from each other, but the Soldier will have been briefed on her, will know that she recognizes vulnerability for what it is: a tactic. He would know better than to use it.
Probably a true feeling then. Genuine reaction. Doesn't mean he's safe territory though, never does. There's no telling what he's reacting to. Not enough information.
His assistance would make the mission faster. She monitors the muscles in his face.
"If you're still sure I have to find what I'm looking for before I can take down Operation: Orphan-"
"Yes,” he rasps, and his voice is tight, constricted vocal chords. "Has to be. Incompatible." He closes his mouth again with a sharp click. He looks at her, looks away, and then forces himself to look back, eyes slowly rising up from the ground to her face. Not an indicator of attraction, there are none of the markers of arousal. The lines around his chin are tight, eyelashes low, jawline clenched. He doesn't want to prevent her investigation, so he must not know what she's really looking for. Can't know where it is. She's certain now that his orders would restrain him if he knew.
"All right." When she speaks, he sighs. "Do you want to help me because it will mean I can help you faster?"
He swallows. It's a struggle. She makes the question easier.
"Do you want to help me?"
His pupils go wide.
"Yes," he whispers.