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"Do you want to help me?" His pupils go wide. "Yes," he whispers.
Characters (this chapter): Natasha Romanoff, Bucky Barnes
Content Warnings: Guns, Violence, Blood
Rating: Mature
Getting into the country unnoticed is difficult, though Natasha anticipates more difficulty when they exit. She doesn't trust the Soldier, trust is a liability. But he functions in predictable ways on a mission. When they walk, she doesn't have to remind him to be quiet. Around people, she doesn't have to teach him how to blend in, to make himself unremarkable. When they swim, he needs breath less often than she does, and they maneuver between mines and nets and underneath the hulls of boats as they enter the heavily monitored waters.
Rising from the surf, she checks her gear, and knows without looking that the Soldier is doing the same. Everything is in order, and he gives her a nod to let her know that his equipment is all accounted for. Well-armed, in hostile territory. If he wants to try and kill her, now is the time to try.
He doesn't.
Natasha is pleased, and a little confused.
"The map said it would be a few miles east."
She unzips her wetsuit.
"If the map was right."
They've already had this conversation, but it is good to review facts. They collaborated, scouring the internet and the internal records of the Chinese, Japanese, and South Korean governments, piecing together as much information as they could about the current landscape. Satellite footage revealed a compound that most likely houses the information Natasha is looking for.
As well as a few dozen operatives, if the reports are correct.
"We're on schedule. Six hours until sunrise. No unforeseen difficulties."
She nods. The Soldier's demeanor doesn't alter as they both change into dry clothes. Natasha catalogues his scars, and she is sure that he is doing the same. The shot to her shoulder has healed completely. The muscles in his back are under strain from the arm, and there are old injuries on his legs and arm that were not entered into the report she acquired. Cause undetermined. Some combination of defensive and training injuries most likely explanation. Hers are similar, though not the same. More time was spent making her body attractive, erasing the injuries. She feels them, underneath the surface. And there were others, many, that were impossible to write over.
They abandon the instruments they no longer require, sending them away with a riptide, and start moving.
There is only one populated area between their location and the target. It is easy to avoid. Parched farmland, yielding little. The soil has been starved. Natasha's night-trained eyes can see that it gives way to rough little houses, unpaved streets. It is a small community, and does not require the excess of surveillance activity they observed in the satellite images.
They find coverage in trees and tall grass, walking on animal trails, without making footprints. They work in tandem, leading and following in shifts, erasing their tracks as they move forward. They don't need to discuss the routine.
When they arrive at the base, they both perform a full check walking the circuit and reconvening when their reconnaissance is complete. The hangar is stocked, and a small fleet of planes awaits them. There are more guards than indicated in their report, but they had prepared for this possibility. The patrolmen are armed, but half of them are focused on the inside of the building, suggesting that there are prisoners inside. They are working to prevent a potential breakout as much as deter trespassers. Easier to distract and confuse, if the teams are split.
"They have check-ins, every thirty minutes," he whispers.
Natasha frowns. "Those are long intervals."
The Soldier shrugs. "They're not rotating either. Easy to slip past them without setting off any alarms."
"All right," she murmurs. "The corridor on the west side is the most vulnerable, but the one on the southeast is closer to what we came here for." He raises an eyebrow at that, and she grins through the darkness. "No bars on the windows. Paperwork's not going to escape."
"Ah." He pauses. "You're sure it's hard data, and not a person we're looking for?"
After walking the perimeter, she is extremely sure. Her steps fell into familiar patterns, though the trees have grown taller and the season has changed. Natasha nods, and waits for him to catch up.
"Ladies' choice, then?" The Soldier swaps his confusion for a cocky grin.
She raises her brow.
"You'll follow my lead?"
He shrugs.
"You already know the way."
They wait until the searchlights turn away to scan the rest of the perimeter. Then, they run, crouching low to the ground, weapons in hand. Natasha leans up against the exterior wall, waiting for the Soldier to join her. He has the advantage of height. She squats, lifting him on her shoulder so he can check inside.
"All clear," he mutters.
He grabs the windowsill with his metal arm. One he's got a steady hold, Natasha leaps off the ground, landing with her hands on his shoulders. She flips her body over and forwards, her feet touching soundlessly down in front of the window. She grabs his flesh arm as he offers it, and together they have enough leverage to lift him up to join her.
Natasha picks the locks without a struggle, disabling the minimal security system before she opens the window. There isn't much moonlight (waxing cycle, cloudy night, they chose appropriately), but she doesn't need it to see. The grain of the wood beneath her hands is not strange, and she lifts herself inside without a sound. The Soldier follows her; she can track his presence, even in silence. His shadow blends with hers.
"What should I look for?"
Natasha circles the room, taking in the floor-to-ceiling filing cabinets, the almost-unfamiliar languages, the dust, the smell of old paper, the hint of mold rising up from the loosely-tiled floor. Recently cleaned. The concentration of bleach is familiar. The smell requires further examination.
"Pripyat," she replies automatically. Of all the information she recovered from the Moranbong storyteller, that is the most connected to her own history. It is important that he still believes her past is what they came for. The Soldier furrows his brow, but he sifts through the files without further instruction. Good. The possibility that he will discover anything new is a low risk. He did what was right, not what he was ordered to do. As a result, thousands of people died. The rasp of the storyteller's voice punctuates the memory. Natasha doesn't remember boys in training with her, but that makes sense, they would have been segregated. "Anything related to a factory explosion." She crouches, rubbing the back of her wrist against the cool floor. Smooth. She absorbs the scent as much as she can. The Soldier watches her.
"All right?"
She rises.
"Data for later."
He nods. "Anything else?"
She shakes her head.
"I can get the rest."
After that, they move. Natasha judges the age of the information by the degree of decay of the paper. Some of it is hardened and crisp, but the more she searches, she finds more documents are written on sheets that feel lighter and thinner than silk. Ears open, they duck and hide when a guard passes, flashing a light through the doorway without precision. Routine check. Natasha scans the files, but there is nothing that explicitly mentions Operation: Orphan by name. Her fingers grow tacky with old grime as she sifts through the documents, absorbing everything. Her lips go through the motions of speech, forming the words without air. When she sees him, she notices that the Soldier has been taught to do the same
There is documentation on Room 39 that Coulson will find useful.
And files with переписывать in prominent red letters. She finds something else there.
He'd tried to say it, hadn't he? The storyteller, his pronunciation mangled by his pain and unfamiliarity alike.
And then, there it is.
Cassandra. Alive, apparently. Natasha refuses to feel anything when she makes the discovery.
"Time." The Soldier glances up at her. "You have everything?"
She nods.
"Do you?"
The look he gives her is rough.
"Good." She draws her gun again. "Because getting out is going to be a bitch." Her fingers perform their checks on the weapon without prompting. "Don't forget anything, got it?"
He doesn't respond with the same levity. Spoilsport.
"Let's go."
Their retreat plan is precise. They will fly one of the planes parked outside as far as they can, parachute off it when they're out of sight, and leave it on autopilot, to be shot down by the North Korean military before it can leave the country. From there, they will have to walk, and then sneak out using a military vehicle. They have both memorized the regular delivery routes, and they both know when it will be safe to deviate from them. It is a reasonable plan, and accounts for any mishaps along the way. They have backups.
Natasha remembers. Failsafes.
The first three patrols go down before the guards realize that they are under attack. Natasha stabs one in the jugular, covering his mouth with his own hand. She leaves the body where it falls. The Soldier has grabbed one by the throat, and the other he shoots in the head. The sound is muffled, but it echoes in the unadorned concrete. When the sound of backup arriving bears down on them, he defers to her.
"Left." Her voice is sure, her feet leading the way. "I can hear three more up ahead."
"I'll get the ones on our six."
The sounds of his efficient disposal chase her. Natasha grabs the gun of the closest man, shoving her shoulders against his collarbone and pointing it at the other two. She slams her head backwards into his nose, and the gun slips from his hand. She delivers more precise shots, then leaps into the air, vaulting herself off the wall as another two stream into the wide corridor. She lands on one man's shoulders, throttling him with her thighs, bending over so he can't slam her head against the ceiling. It strains his back as he struggles, making his aim imprecise. The other man is shot between the eyes as he tries to aim at her. The man underneath her crumbles, and Natasha somersaults off him, dodging a stray bullet she sees coming for her in her periphery.
She glances back at the Soldier. With a snarl, he tears the arm of the shooter from its socket, and the spray of blood paints the walls. The man, screaming, crumbles to his knees. The Soldier kicks him in the face, breaking his neck. The screams are cut off instantly.
"I shouldn't have let that happen," he glares.
She shrugs.
"Shit happens."
He's still glowering at the corpse.
"You coming?"
His eyes snap up to meet hers.
"Do you hear that?"
Rumbling. She does. "Going to have to move faster, then." The Soldier nods. He leaps over the bodies, grasping her arm briefly as they run together. Heavier guns, of course. The building is well-equipped. The fastest route to the hangar is through the middle of the building. The courtyard. Square and barren. She can feel the cold concrete through her boots. There's little coverage from the firefight that meets them there. The Soldier shoves her behind a column seconds before the shots are fired. Bullets ricochet off his metal arm, and one lands in his thigh for his trouble. He doesn't wince.
Natasha gestures to the tanks to their left. He nods.
He takes aim, providing cover for her as she darts out, reaching the gasoline storage quickly and with minor injuries (three bullets graze her body in non-lethal areas). With her right hand, she picks off the nearest attackers, shooting her targets with minimal visual confirmation. She can hear the Soldier doing the same over her shoulder, shooting through walls when he has to. All of his shorts are deadly. In her left hand, she builds the detonator.
She doesn't give the Soldier any warning. There's no time. She merely runs, and he joins her, reloading while she fires at the moving shadows ahead of them. Their assailants fall, and she can hear the panic behind her, but they won't be able to stop the reaction in time. On schedule, the tank explodes.
The Soldier gets ahead of her, barreling up a narrow flight of stairs, clearing a path towards the hangar. The secondary explosion singes her skin, and the deafening sound drowns out the howls coming from the walls. Her clothing fuses with her skin as it melts, and she keeps running.
First, Natasha sees the antiaircraft cannon, and knows she needs to disable it. There are more troops on the roof. The Soldier is already disposing of them, his hands bloody. There's a new bullet wound in his thigh, deep, but he's elected to ignore it. Natasha grapples with the first guards in her path. She disarms one with a high kick, breaking his wrist when she makes contact. His gun sails over his head, falling off the roof. While he is distracted by her minor application of pain, Natasha crouches, making herself a smaller target for the idiot waving his gun around, trying to shoot her without taking proper aim. She uses the momentum of the soldier charging at her, catching his abdomen, sending him careening over her head as she rises. The soldiers collide, and she shoots them before either one can recover. There are lights flashing all around them. Natasha can see the Soldier, not struggling as he combats the fresh guards following them up the stairs.
She plucks a gun from one of the corpses, shooting seven more guards as she heads for the cannon. It's not a complex design. Five men are taking cover behind a barricade nearby, shooting blindly at her. She darts in between their bullets, and realizes that she is going to fall. The ledge is too close, and there is another soldier on her heels. Natasha grabs a rope from her belt and wraps a lasso around the cannon as she runs past. She can use her momentum to drag it off the roof. When she reaches the edge, she will stop, she will spin, and she will let the weight of the attack pull her down, and the leverage will be enough to drag the canon down after them. She will have to be quick, maneuver around the canon to sustain minimal damage when she lands, and she has already reached the edge...
She stops. She spins. The attack arrives as anticipated. She aims the man's gun away from her, over her head, unbalancing him, and she drags him, and his weight does the rest as he falls, and she's going to follow him-
A cold metal arm wraps around her ankle. The Soldier pulls her backwards, and she lands on her feet, body jerking. The remaining guards are dead. Natasha looks at the Soldier. He shrugs.
"What about the canon?"
The Soldier glares at it. He grabs the barrel in his metal hand and crushes it.
"What about it?"
She snorts.
"Let's get out, before reinforcements arrive."
He nods. They step cautiously, staying out of the light, but the hangar is unguarded. Most likely because all of the guards are occupied: dead, or hiding, dealing with the fire that is quickly consuming the prison, or running from the wreckage. Natasha abandons the weapons she'd borrowed from their attackers, grabbing an extra case of fuel. Above her, the propeller of a plane roars to life. The Soldier is leaning out of the cockpit, and the motor is running. Natasha does a last check of the perimeter and an assessment of their supplies before she accepts his hand. The place is burning. Smoke is filling the sky. The Soldier lifts her into the plane, flying without any direction. It's an older model, but fast, and lighter than the others. Natasha approves of the choice.
They pierce through the veil of smoke and soar up to meet the sky. They ascend slowly, cautious of the way dramatic changes in pressure affect their bodies. Natasha consults her internal compass, using the fading stars for guidance, but they are flying in the direction they'd planned.
The plane hums underneath her. Natasha locks her eyes ahead and focuses on the scent she impressed against her wrist. Cleanser, the kind that will cut through bodily fluids. Like acid, leaving nothing behind. It reminds her of sturdy sheets against her cheek, and a cold, solid floor supporting her bare toes as they scraped past short, slender bed frames.
"Agent?" The Soldier's voice rumbles over the sound of the plane.
She refocuses. They still have a few miles left to fly.
"Have we been spotted?"
"No." He grunts. "They won't."
She raises her eyebrow, then remembers he can't see her. "You sure? You don't sound sure. Maybe you want to expand on that."
His lips curl, she sees the reflection in the control panel.
"We should go back to DC."
She hadn't planned on staying in his company for much longer. There's not much point.
"I left something there. It's important." He chews on the inside of his cheek. "I left his shield."
Natasha reaches underneath her seat for her pack, taking out their parachutes. She passes one to the Soldier, and he adjusts the straps as he wraps them around his chest and shoulders.
"Why?" She shouts over the sound of the wind as he opens the cockpit.
"I was too injured, when I fell. I wanted to." He grimaces as he enters the last command sequence for the plane. Natasha watches his fingers moving across the screen. The plane will be shot down before it crosses the border. "After I saw you," his voice carries back to her, "the first time. You said he didn't want me dead." He nods, and she jumps. He follows her, dropping through the air above her. For a few moments, the only sound is the air as it passes by her. He opens his parachute first, and as soon as he's safely out of range, Natasha does the same. They float to the ground. The landing is jarring, shakes through her entire body. Behind her, the fabric of the Soldiers' parachute is fluttering. He connects to the ground with a dull thud.
"I remembered it. It belongs to him." He discards the straps, loosening himself from the tangled material. "It was made for him, I know that." His lips part before he speaks. "Hydra shouldn't have it."
Natasha nods, because she agrees. The shield is a useful weapon, and it would be difficult to replicate. Rogers most likely feels a sentimental attachment to it as well. Vibranium is also rare. It is possible now to replicate it, but the process is difficult. That shield survived the Second World War, a deep freeze in the arctic, and Captain Rogers himself.
"And you left it in DC?"
"Hidden." He grins. "Glad I gave you the tracking chip when I did." The grin is a wild one, a memory of wicked misbehavior. "The Smithsonian had a replica."
Her mouth twists.
He chuckles.
"I doubt anyone will look for it there."
"Probably not." She releases her smile. "All right. We can both go back there." She considers it. "I know somewhere safe. If you want to rest. Before you make your report."
He stiffens.
"I don't want to."
His body is speaking to her. Shoulders are a stiff, stubborn line. Pupils wide. His eyes look dark and shaded over in the early dawn light. His legs are wide apart, feet digging into the loamy ground. He's angry and he's scared. And he's trying to hide it all behind his strength, metal arm hovering in front of his body like a shield. Her well-trained eye observes a glimmer at the corner of his tear ducts, the tremor in his stomach muscles, the scent of an adrenal response tainting his sweat.
"I will." the language slips away. He becomes a calm, moving machine again. It is necessary.
She watches him, wary, as he takes the lead, stepping around her, towards the horizon. He glances back at her over his shoulder. "Sorry." A sense of the old smile returns. "I thought you knew."
"I did." She had suspected, because it was prudent to suspect. He has a report to make, and someone to report to. There is no reason to feel disappointed, but his responses indicate that he expects her to be.
She starts planning their route to DC. They'll have to wash off the blood.

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