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Part I: Clint Barton.

Eight weeks after Loki, Natasha finds you curled up on the floor of your quarters, shaking and sweating and biting through your lip to keep from shouting. She sits down next to you. In retrospect, she must have bugged your quarters. How else would she have known to come? But you didn't think of it then, and that night, she sat down and put her hand on your shoulder. She told you a story about the bad old days, one you'd never heard from her before. It went like this:

Once upon a time, there was a girl. Her mother was a Soviet scientist. The mother defected, managed to get most of her family out, got under protection by one or the other, or possibly more than one, of the elite Western security services. This infuriated the masters of the Red Room, so they called out their best, and one night, when the so-called elite Western security services took their eye off the ball, the Red Room came and murdered the family at the dinner table. First, the son of the family, who was four, then the older girl who tried to run, then the father, then the mother.

The girl in question was the middle child and hid under the table. Right before the Red Room came in, she had dropped her spoon and was under the table, and when the shooting started, she stayed under the table. She listened to them make each and every member of her family beg for their lives before shooting them.

"What happened to her?" you asked, wiping your face off with the back of your hand.

"What do you think?" Natasha responds, in a kind, but neutral way.

You take a deep, shaking breath; Natasha propped you up to a sitting position with your back against the wall, and she goes on looking at you in that kind, but neutral way, and shortly after that, she surprises you: who would have thought that after almost twenty years of working with each other either of you could still surprise the other in something like this? But she does. She leans forward and presses her lips to first to your forehead, then, gently, on the mouth. You go still, and then she pulls away and looks you in the eyes. Her fingers are curled under your forearm; you've sweated through your clothes.

"Come on," she says. "Let's get you back into bed, under those covers."

...

Twenty-one weeks after Loki, three weeks after some idiot tries to end civilization by putting biological dirty bombs in the freshwater supply of 60% of the world's population, you're sitting up on a high perch with Natasha. When SHIELD is not at war, the Helicarrier is almost always in the water, as it is now, and it's a very, very, very big ship, so there isn't much rocking at deck level, but at the very highest points, you can feel a slow, subtle swaying. You are up there with Natasha. It isn't a large space, not even a real deck or a seating area, just a place you found to sit high and look out at the world. Your hip is against her hip, and her shoulder is -- not quite at your shoulder, because in the end, the Black Widow is actually quite small.

The night is deep and black over your heads, and there are only a few stars visible due to cloud cover.

You have worked with her for almost twenty years.

She leans over, puts her hand behind your head. Your mind had been on other things, and you start when she touches you, but relax when you realize it's her. She smells a little dusty, which is odd, and then, she kisses you again. First, the forehead, then on either cheek, then on the mouth. Again: she smells a little dusty, and her lips are dry, and then she pulls back and looks you in the eye, and the two of you look at each other for a while.

"I have to go," she says, softly, and takes her hand away from the back of the head. You blink, and she has gone down the hatchway.

Four hours later, you wake from a dream that Loki is in the room with you, but disappears whenever you turn to look at him. The alert klaxons are going; lights are flashing; running feet pass by in the corridor outside. Natasha has unleashed the Hulk on the sleeping Helicarrier.

...

Natasha came over a few years before the end of the Cold War, and in the beginning, you were the only SHIELD agent willing to work with her. After a few years, you were the one she liked working with the most. Not all of your missions include a partner; many of hers do not. When one is called for, though, when one would be convenient or desirable or make things easier, she asks for you. You ask for her. Coulson used to give you shit about it; in the last year or two, he had gotten comfortable enough with Natasha to joke about it with her, too.

After Natasha sets the Hulk loose on the Helicarrier, you track her in the dark engine tunnels that she always drops back into; you can even guess at the path she is taking to get out of the place, so you tell SHIELD security to keep her from getting into there, and you get the jump on her, but the advantage doesn't last very long. She immobilizes them with gas, and she spins, blocks you with a forearm, and then pops off the paralyzer built into her suit: you remember that she didn't use them before, when you had Loki inside your head, because she was worried what it might do to your compromised brain chemistry.

No such worries now.

You drop to the metal grate. She does not ease you down. In fact, you go down hard enough to knock the breath out of you all over again, and just to make it extra-hard, extra difficult, she puts her knee in the small of her back and bends down quickly, gracefully.

"Do you remember Budapest?" she says, and you can hear the laughter in her voice. You can hear the Hulk, rampaging two decks above. Screaming. Shots. You can't say anything in reply because of the paralyzer, and because it's hard enough to breathe after the paralyzer, harder still to breathe when you are on your stomach after the paralyzer, almost impossible when you are on your stomach after the paralyzer and someone is kneeling on your back. You manage a gurgle.

"You made the wrong call, Clint," she says, and the weight on your back disappears.

...

One time, sitting in a car doing terribly boring surveillance work deep in the heart of suburbia, watching kids at a playground, Nat shifted, then asked, "Do you ever wonder what your life would be like if you didn't work for SHIELD? Family? Children?"

Thankfully, you had binoculars in your hand, so you didn't have to look at her face. "No."

"Really? You probably would've finished up your enlistment a couple years back. Smart, ex-Army Ranger, so you'd be working for a security firm, doing consulting. You'd have a house in a place like this. Nice car. Wife. Children. By this point, maybe even teenagers."

You definitely don't trust yourself to look her in the face now. "No."

"You're lying," she says and shifts, again, comfortably, in the driver's seat.

"Definitely not lying," you say. "You can't make me go to suburbia without you."

She stops for a moment, and your heart hangs in the air for a while, but then she laughs and touches you on the shoulder. You take your eyes away from the binoculars, and your heart -- hangs again, is the only way you can describe it, because she is leaning close to you, because she isn't quite smiling, but she doesn't look blank either, and for her, that counts.

"I wouldn't try," she says, and goes back to sitting in the driver's seat, and you go back to looking through the binoculars. Your hands don't exactly shake because you're Hawkeye, but your heart feels as though it does.

...

When you met her, you were twenty-five, done with Ranger training, done with SHIELD training, a couple of tricky missions under your belt and looking for a new challenge. The junior man on an operation. You had the bow drawn at her; she was at your feet. It was a rooftop; it was raining. Your superior was shouting at you, in your earpiece, to release and be done with it. You'd killed before and had no problems with doing it, and she was expecting it. Hoping for it, maybe. She'd certainly killed enough other SHIELD agents to warrant it.

"Your people abandoned you," you said.

She didn't say anything, but was staring at you. It went on raining.

"Come work for us," you said.

"What promises can you make?" Her English was, of course, flawless.

"None, but if you put those cuffs on and don't try to escape, I'll put an arrow through the eye of anyone who tries to hurt you."

She considered you for another moment, then reached forward, picked the cuffs off the ground, and cuffed herself. The lights went green to show they had a lock, and a few minutes later, your superior and four SHIELD agents came running up. You told them that they should keep their guns out, but if anyone shot her while she was cuffed and not trying to escape, that man would be dead before he hit the ground. The superior agent gaped at you, but nobody fired, and you put the bow away, slung it over your back, and then, you walked her down to the helicopter, hands cuffed in front of her, but your hand at her elbow.

The two of you have been together, one way or the other, ever since. Missions apart, missions together, Loki, nothing ever changed that.

Does it matter if you'll never say the words? Does it matter if she never ages, but you do?

You know that she's been alive for at least seventy years. You never ask who filled your role before you did; you never ask why she was running alone in Budapest. You assume that she told her debriefers, and they would have told you if it was important, and she would have told you if she wanted you to know.

She leaves you face-down in your spit and vomit -- the paralyzer takes some people that way. It does this to you every time, in training and out; Natasha knows. You know. The only reason you don't choke to death before help arrives is that she did it to you on a metal grate, so it doesn't pool around your mouth and nose.

Nick Fury --

...

You wake from a dream where Loki is behind you, disappearing out of sight whenever you turn to look at him, and Natasha is in front of you, and will not leave your line of sight.

It isn't the alarm clock that wakes you, though, but an urgent priority message beeping and flashing on the console, coupled with someone banging on your door. Why have you been sleeping so deeply? On missions, you get the prescribed, possible amount of sleep in order to stay alert and functional, but between missions, on your own, you stay awake, trying to survive on fifteen minutes of sleep here, fifteen minutes of sleep there, until you collapse. That way, unconsciousness swallows you up, head first, and you pull yourself slowly, carefully out of bed. The message on the console, and the SHIELD greenie at your door have the same message: Director Fury wants to see you now. Do not shower. Do not stop for coffee. If you must, stop to take a leak, but once you wash your hands, come up. He knows you sleep in your tactical suit, so just come to his office.

You do not shower. You do not stop for coffee. You do stop to take a leak and wash your hands, and when you get to Fury's office, you find Steve Rogers, Captain America, sitting in the other guest chair, wearing civilian clothes, looking like he's just been poleaxed.

"Sit down," Nick Fury says, so you sit. The door whooshes shut behind you, and the white noise/ anti-bugging generator kicks on. You look around, then back to Fury with your eyebrows a little raised.

"What I am telling you now, and what I have just told Captain Rogers, is for your ears only. It does not leave this room. You do not write it down, you do not tell anyone, and you do not so much as think it to anyone else."

"Yes, sir." Why does he need to tell you these things? You know what ears only means. Fury looks at you, very intently.

"I know you've seen the footage of Agent Romanov working with the Ten Rings, Agent Barton." Fury says, and this is not a surprise to you: it's been the biggest SHIELD scandal of the past half-decade. Fury has probably also been accessing the logs of what you pull up to watch on the console in your room, in which case, he knows you've been watching it -- a lot. On loop. Every scrap you can pull out of the computer banks.

"When she left SHIELD to join the Ten Rings," Nick Fury says. "It was with my permission and the blessing of the Council."

"What?" You start out of your seat.

"We did not know that she was going to use Banner, but she had warned us that it was going to be necessary to take extreme measures to persuade the Ten Rings of her change in loyalty," Fury says.

"Why?"

"Variety of reasons, most of which you don't need to know about." You have to swallow that, because a moment later, Nick Fury says, "What you do need to know is that Natasha is coming home and landing on the Helicarrier in four hours."

"I see," you say, after a moment.

Another moment goes by, and then Nick Fury says, "She's bringing the Winter Soldier with her."

Steve Rogers is still staring at the wall behind Nick Fury's head, but he lets out a long, long breath.

Part II: Steve Rogers.

Bucky carries his own bag to the third floor, and he looks healthy enough: there is a thorough medical checkup, and for extra measures, Fury brought in a telepath to check through Bucky's head0. Through the plastic-glass window on the front of Bucky's unit, you watched her work. It involved mostly her leaning back in the chair and filing her nails and occasionally glancing at Bucky with a slight, faintly contemptuous smile. He would look back at her while sitting in the bed with his metal arm on a chain between the wall and what you understood to be a two ton bolt. Even the Hulk would have trouble taking that apart.

Afterwards, she comes out of the room.

"He's clean of anything dangerous," she tells Nick Fury and blows dust off her nails.

"Anything dangerous?"

"I took out the usual triggers about going on a rampage if interrogated. That kind of thing. I left in some of the patchwork that keeps him from going to pieces, and I didn't touch the killswitch."

"Killswitch?" you say. Fury glances over at you, and so does the telepath, scans you up and down, and with a small arch in her eyebrow that could be approval.

"Say the correct sequence of words, and preprogrammed events will happen. On this one, his higher brain function will shut down. It's like a built-in neural paralyzer. Crude, but useful in this case. Do you want me to leave it in?"

For this, she looks over at Fury, and Fury, again, glances over at you. You look back at him, steady.

"With all due respect, si -- " you start to say.

"Leave it in for now," Fury cuts you off without looking at you. "Put it in your report, for my eyes only."

The edges of her mouth turn up, as though she's going to make an eyepatch joke, but she doesn't. You look from her face to Fury's, then back again.

So: Bucky carries his own bag to your apartment on third floor, and he looks healthy enough, though his arm is metal.

...

"How much do you remember?"

"The cryogenic freezing took most of it."

The two of you are in Brooklyn, in front of the building where Bucky lived with his mother.

...

"Do you remember this?"

"The cryogenic freezing took most of it."

The two of you are at Coney Island, looking out at the ocean.

"The rollercoaster we used to ride on was over there," you say, pointing, and Bucky follows your finger with his eyes.

...

Bucky sleeps on your couch. Bucky eats what you tell him to. Bucky drinks when you tell him to. You go into your bedroom, lock the door, call SHIELD on your secure phone, and argue with Fury about the necessity of taking the killswitch out, of fully deprogramming him, but he tells you that you're lucky even to be allowed this much leeway with him, and then he tells you he has more important business to deal with, and you climb out the window to the fire escape and stare down into the alleyway below. You try to breathe slowly, calmly. After a while, you look up, and you realize that Bucky climbed out of the window in the living room and is standing next to you.

It's early summer, and you haven't put the air conditioning on: you grew up without it, so even though the central air is available in your building, you aren't in the habit of leaving it on.

In the warmth, Bucky stripped down to his undershirt. His hair sticks up a little. He has a beer from the refrigerator in each hand, and aside from the metal arm, he almost looks --

You take the beer. It's cold in your hand.

"Was that Fury?" he says.

"Yes."

"Were you asking him to take out the killswitch?"

You exhale. "Yes."

"He refused?"

"Yes."

Bucky takes a sip of the beer, and you know he looks at you. "It bothers you, doesn't it?"

"It should bother you."

Bucky takes another sip. "I've lived with it for over sixty years."

After another moment, he climbs through the window and goes back inside. He turns on the television and puts on the baseball game.

...

Bucky washes dishes. Bucky offers to take laundry down to the laundromat. He had a little money in an account when he went off the train, and over the years, it's grown to enough to -- Bucky makes omelettes one night and tells you about the week he spent as a sous chef in a Swiss ski resort, but he doesn't mention anything about the bloody ending, and you hesitate on the edge of asking, but pull back. One evening, you take him to the gym, and the two of you go a few rounds in the boxing ring, sort of feeling each other out. He's faster than you are, especially with the metal arm. He has more technique, too, but you have the advantage of height and reach and, you suspect, raw power.

A few days after that, one afternoon, you come back from spending some time by yourself in the park, ruining a couple sheets of sketch paper. Through the door, you hear two voices speaking in a language other than English, and when you open the door, Bucky turns around quickly, almost guiltily. In the hallway, you had heard him laughing.

Natasha is on the couch with him. She has her feet propped in his lap, and when you open the door, her eyes go first to Bucky's face, then to you, then back to Bucky's face.

...

"Thank you," you say to her, one morning in the corridors of the Helicarrier.

"For what?" she says.

"For bringing him back."

The two of you are working that day, wiping out a nest of neo-Nazis in Montana who have taken a disturbing number of steps towards building an atomic bomb, and she is in her tactical suit, and you arein your Captain America uniform.

She notices that you don't quite say -- for bringing Bucky back.

You don't ask whether she, too, has a killswitch inside her head.

...

Bucky does the dishes. Bucky folds the sheets and puts away his pillow on the couch. Natasha brings him a few extra shirts and pairs of pants and underwear. One weekday, the three of you take the train into Manhattan, and since the city has changed so much, you try to give descriptions and introductions of buildings.

"That's Rockefeller Center. They put an ice skating rink there in the winter of '36, and it was fancy. Fifteen cents to go on, five cents to rent skating boots, so we never went. Bucky just stood at the rail and picked up girls," you say, and Natasha smiles a little, but otherwise, the comment falls flat, and the three of you end up in Central Park, near the Sheep Meadow. Natasha sits down, half in the shade, half out of the shade of a tree. She's wearing sunglasses; despite the heat of the day, Bucky is wearing a long-sleeve shirt to hide his metal arm. You look at the two of them, and aren't sure whether you should sit down -- you aren't sure what to do, and are grateful when a kid overkicks a ball and it bounces past and you have to take it back to him.

...

Bucky --

...

Bucky suggests a nice dinner. His last pay packet from the war got deposited into an account for his next of kin, and since he didn't have any, with interest, it's turned out to be a couple hundred bucks over the years. Not enough for a lot, but enough for a nice dinner. How about a nice dinner?

...

What do you know about sex? Only what twenty-two year old boys from Brooklyn know if they've never had any. Bucky told you the anatomical details, and when you were in France during the were, you were passed an English-language menu from a brothel, so you have an idea of the general variety. For the emotional aspect of it, Peggy once walked up to you in a red dress that she knew you'd appreciate.

Aside from that, what do you know? What experience do you have?

You have no chance against two Red Room operatives with over a hundred years of field time between them.

Bucky borrows your laptop and figures out a restaurant he'd like to have dinner at and makes a reservation. Natasha wears a black dress, and you put on a suit. None of the three of you have much in the way to drink, but afterwards, the three of you take a cab back to the apartment. Natasha unzips her dress and Bucky shucks his shirt off, his arm catching in the orange glow from the streetlight. You aren't sure whether you belong, but Natasha reaches over and takes your hand, licks two of your fingers from base to fingertip, and puts them between her legs. You make a noise because when have you felt something like that before? It's hot. It's wet. You feel like you've been knocked in the chest, and Natasha leans forward and looks you in the eyes.

"Like this," she says and presses your hand flat, so that the fingers rub against her in the right place. Her back arches, you gasp, and Bucky leans over and kisses her. You look at your fingers against Natasha, her mouth against Bucky's, his hands in her hair, and when she pulls away, both of their mouths are wet. You've been unconsciously licking your own lips, and the way it works after that is this: you sit on the edge of the bed. Natasha is behind you. She unbuttons your shirt. Bucky kneels down on the floor, between your legs, works your pants off you. You reach down to help, and Natasha puts her hands around your wrists.

"Let him do it," she says in your ear, and you think you could come just from the feeling of her body pressed again you, her hair brushing against your shoulder, the smell of her perfume, old-fashioned enough that you recognize it. She touches her mouth to your neck, but then Bucky gets your pants off, pulls your underwear down to your ankles and then works them off past your feet. He takes you into his mouth, and that -- that is like nothing on the face the Earth.

You make a noise that doesn't sound like it could come from you. Natasha tightens the grip she has on your wrists.

"Stay calm," she whispers and kisses your ear; Bucky takes you in all the way down and looks up. You see him looking up at you, see the shape of his mouth wrapped around you, and how long could you last with Natasha's voice in your ear, with Bucky's tongue against the underside of your cock? It's your first time.

Bucky swallows, you think, although you're too dazed to notice. He slides up onto the bed next to you, and Natasha climbs on top of him. Her bra is still on; it's black and the only stitch of clothing on her body. He puts his arms around her; she sighs, and he sits up and puts his hand in the small of her back. Their mouths meet.

Afterwards, you sleep with Bucky next to you and Natasha on the far side.

...

In the morning, you wake when Natasha slips out of bed, gathers up her clothes, and goes to the living room to get dressed. It's a little after dawn, and the light is pale gray.

"Everything all right?" you ask.

She looks up at you with one eyebrow quirked. "Yes," she says.

"What happened last night?"

The other eyebrow goes up, and she turns around. "Zip me up."

...

"What happened?" you say, repeating yourself as you take your hand away from the zipper.

"He asked."

She turns around and considers you. You think about kissing her, but you don't, and you sense that she approves of this: you also sense it would be impolite to ask her what she said to him last night on the bed. She takes a step back and puts her earrings in. Picks her heels up from the side of the couch.

"How long did you work together?"

"Forty years," Natasha says. She gets her purse from the coffee table, and sees herself, barefoot, out of your apartment.

You're a kind person, not a stupid one, and you sit down on the couch and wait for Bucky to come out.

...

"What happened last night?" you say to Bucky.

The morning is bright and full; at Bucky's request, the two of you are walking to breakfast.

"I think you had sex, Steve Rogers," he says, and he sounds so much like -- like the man you used to know that you pause for a moment, and he looks back at you and smiles. It's bright, full, clear morning. "Congratulations, you're no longer a virgin."

You digest that for a moment, and then Bucky grins.

"Come on," he says. "Follow me. I want to show you something."

You follow him down an alley, through a back way, then up some stairs. "It's on the third floor of here," he says, at the back door of a building that looks abandoned, but he has the key. You follow him up the stairs, through the garbage and the dead leaves, and he unlocks a door: it used to be a warehouse of some kind. You step through; the only furniture in it is a table and three chairs. The electricity is on, though, because there is a light bulb turne don.

"What did you want to show me?" you say.

For a reply, you hear Bucky's quick footstep, then feel a jab against your arm. It burns. Bucky's hand is against your chest; his hand is on the hypodermic needle in your arm, and you go down on your knees.

"Stay calm," he says. "I remember your asthma."

Your body burns. Your vision blurs. You can feel your body shrinking around you; it's a terrifying feeling. He puts his hand on your chest, gently easing you onto the floor.

You try to say his name, but your tongue won't work. Your arms and legs spasm. He sets something up on the side, just out of your vision. A camera? Something on three legs, a tripod. You gurgle in your throat.

"They used to give this to the trainees at the Red Room," he says, kneeling down on the floor next to you, hand on your chest. "When we misbehaved. How do you discipline a school full of superhuman children? Take away their powers. The Red Room serum is based on the Super Soldier Serum, so I took a chance that it would work on you. Finding the ingredients wasn't easy."

"I thought -- psychological triggers -- " Your breath comes in pants, and you try to stand up, but your legs won't obey you. "Telepath."

He straddles your chest, and you grunt, because that certainly doesn't make it any easier to breathe. "Yes," Bucky says. "That's correct, as far as it goes. Emma Frost is very good."

He watches you struggle for breath for another moment, decides this is just a side effect of your body shrinking around you as the Red Room serum temporarily cancels out the Super Soldier enhancements, not a life-threatening asthma attack.

Bucky leans close, as if he isn't sure how much hearing the cancellation of the Super Soldier serum has left you with. Now that he's off-balance, you try to push him off you, but you suspect that there were tranquilizers mixed into the shot, because you can't form fists. "This is entirely personal," Bucky says.

"You let me fall," he says. "Do you have any idea how long the Red Room had me?"

"Forty," you manage to say.

"More than that. How do I know how to seduce a man? When did I learn to suck dick like that, Steve? You won't believe the things I know how to do."

You can't manage a single sound, so Bucky says, quietly,"You let me fall. Natasha left me behind. They sold me to the Ten Rings."

He pulls his fist back and hits you hard enough to make the world go bloody, and he doesn't stop.

 

Part III: Natasha Romanov.

Once upon a time, you told Clint Barton about another once upon a time: a girl, her family sitting down at dinner. The girl dropped her spoon, so she slipped under the table for it, and while she was down there, the Red Room came and killed her family. From the way you told it, Clint assumed that you had been one of the Red Room agents, that you'd either pulled the trigger on the girl yourself, or you'd been part of it. It was your way of comforting him, reminding him that you'd done plenty of awful, unforgivable things. You'd survived. So would he.

He isn't wrong, at least not in a material way. It's just --

...

What does it mean to you to be able to walk around New York City with the Winter Soldier? Steve Rogers points out buildings, and the Winter Soldier looks at you, and you look back. The glances say:

I remember lying on a ledge on that building for six hours, waiting for the parade to pass by so that I could blow a hole in a man's skull in front of thousands of people.

I remember strangling a man with garotte wire in an empty office in this building; I had orders to steal the satellite plans in his office.

Nobody ever forgets how they came to the --

...

Once upon a time, you told Clint Barton a spy fairy tale: a girl, her family sitting down at dinner. Assassins came into the room and murdered her mother, father, brother, and sister while she hid under the table. He assumed that you were one of the Red Room agents, that you told him this story as a way of explaining that it was possible to do awful things to people and survive. As far as that goes, it's true. You agree with every syllable of the moral.

What you didn't tell him is: you were the girl under the table, stuffing her fingers into her mouth to keep from screaming while your family died around you.

What you didn't say is: after the shooting was over, the Red Room agent reached under the tablecloth and dragged you, kicking and screaming and sobbing out into the light of the room. He grabbed you by the back of the head and made you look at the tablecloth, the bread from the bakery down the street, the dish of potatoes, the salad, the roast chicken, all spattered with blood. Your baby brother, with half of his face blown off. Your older sister, stretched and lying on the carpet, with the shot in the leg that brought her down, the two shots in her head that killed her. Your father, face-down on his plate, and your mother, with the blood still dripping down her face from the holes. The killer had made her lean her head forward, look at the carnage in front of her, before putting a bullet into the back of her head, one for each eye.

"Look at that. Do you want me to kill you now?" he said, and in retrospect, you realize he must have been speaking in Russian, not the Dutch that you were learning in school.

You were crying. Snot ran down your face. You were short of breath, and the part of your brain that sorts these things remembers that you had been wearing a white blouse and black-and-gray checked pants. He wore black leather gloves; his face was surprisingly young, and he shook you.

"Listen to me," he said. "You left the kitchen door unlocked, and that's how I was able to get in. Do you want me to kill you?"

You sucked in a big, deep breath, but couldn't stop crying, so he shook you again. "Answer me. I have orders to bring you back, if you're alive, but it's better if you die. If you want to, I can make it look like you tried to run."

Finally, you managed to shake your head.

"I want to live," you sobbed, and took in another big, tearing breath. "I don't want to die. Please don't kill me. Please -- "

He sighed and picked you up and put you over his shoulder.

...

What you don't say to Steve or to Clint: the Red Room assassin that day was the Winter Soldier.

What you don't say to the Winter Soldier, because you don't need to: Americans and the British think the Red Room actually describes a place in the Kremlin. There are plenty of places in there where the walls and floors and ceilings were covered in blood, soaked in death and torture and misery, but those who had been through it know better.

The Red Room refers a method of recruitment, not a place of training.

Nobody ever forgets how they came to the Red Room.

...

"I want to live," you sobbed, and took in another big, tearing breath. "I don't want to die. Please don't kill me. Please -- "

He sighed and picked you up and put you over his shoulder. You remember being drugged; you remember lying like a doll in the corner while he changed into his workmen's overalls and put the gun away into his workman's bag and slipped across the roof to the building next door and went down the stairs, just a plumber and his young daughter who had gone to work with her dad and fell asleep after lunch. He sang to you, softly, as he drove out of the city and into the countryside, as you woke up. He held your hair while you vomited from the aftereffects of the drugs, gave you water from his canteen so you could rinse your mouth out. Fed you half of his sandwich. That night in the field, waiting for pickup to come, he wrapped you in his coat and held you while you slept.

"I won't tell you not to cry," he told you when the helicopter lights appeared on the horizon and you woke "You will cry, and you will scream, and it will be more pain than you think you can bear, but I'll come see you as much as I can."

He squeezed your hand. You tried not to cry, but he was right: you did cry. You did scream. The pain was almost more than you could bear.

You were eight.

An unimaginably distant number of years later, you are standing in front of the locker at the train station where you stash your equipment while in the city -- you carry a gun, of course, but other items. Your wrist shooters. Backup identities. Getaway cash. It has been emptied out, and instead, the only things inside are: a gun, loaded. A small videophone with a live feed of one man, dark hair, standing over a man with light-colored hair, beating him --

...

Bucky isn't even beating Steve Rogers very hard. He isn't even hitting him with his metal arm, but you recognize the blue tinge to the hands, the disorientation, the puckered look around the mouth. Steve looks smaller on the screen than you've ever seen him. You recognize the needles on the table.

You slide the gun into your pocket, keep the videophone in front of you, though you pull out the headphones and turn down the volume and put the headphones in your pocket. You go out to an alleyway near a truck tunnel behind the train station.
...

In the cold field, with dawn and the helicopter on the horizon, the Winter Soldier squeezed your hand. You tried not to cry, but he was right: you did cry. You did scream. The pain was almost more than you could bear.

He came to visit.

You were eight.

Seven years later, you save his life, because he refuses to kill a father in front of his daughter: he was tired. They were driving him too hard, and he had been pushed to the breaking point, so you held the girl and turned her face away while the Winter Soldier killed her father. Drakov's daughter? You delivered her to the Red Room, and you tell Clint this story without mentioning the Winter Soldier part of it. You inform your superiors of his failure, of course, and the Winter Soldier does not hold it against you: he knows the penalties for withholding information against the masters, and that is when they start putting him into the ice between missions, taking him out only when there was a mission that called for him, or one where you had asked for him.

In part, this is why seventy years later and twenty years after the fact, you're still amused by the fact that Clint defied his superiors and lived to tell the story. Nick Fury told the Council to go fuck themselves with their stupid-ass decision, and he lived to continue to direct SHIELD. If they had been under your command while you were in the Red Room, what would you have done to them? Terrible things. Things that would have passed into legend. Dying screaming would have been the best case scenario.

What does Captain America mean to you? Some. Not much. You like him; you respect him. You have something in common with him, since both of you come from a time that has passed. In this case, it isn't the hostage that drives your actions. It's the hostage-taker. It's the fact that the Winter Soldier is back, is free, and yet nobody ever forgets the Red Room.

You're standing in the rain in an alleyway by a truck tunnel to a train station. Delivery trucks rumble by. Deep underground, trains pull into Grand Central Station.

What does it mean to be alive, if you can't ever leave the Red Room? What do you have to lose?

You turn up the volume on the video feed; the Winter Solider has stopped beating Steve, and there is a slow, sweet song playing. Russian. You recognize it from the night you were wrapped in a coat, waiting for dawn.

Red in your ledger beginning from when you were ei--

The Winter Soldier turns his face to you and says a few words, and they burn in your veins. A psychological trigger, maybe, buried deep in your psyche by Red Room programming. Say this word, play this piece of music which she told us about, say these other words, and even the Black Widow will --

You put the gun in your mouth and pull the trigger.

...

The Red Room plays with your perception of time. They do it very intentionally. They want seconds to feel like days, for years to compress into a few blinks. You remember crying, and you remember screaming, and you remember almost overwhelming pain that stretched forwards and backwards, until it seemed as though you had been tortured since the beginning of time and would continue to be until the end. You remember hours of drills and lessons and more drills and lessons that turned into weeks, weeks that turned into months, months that turned into years, with exhaustion and pain and time in the conditioning chambers interspersed.

Together, the pain and exhaustion and crying and screaming and torture are meant to bleed the resentment and hatred and emotion out of Red Room trainees.

Candidates who don't have the resentment and hatred and emotion bled out of them disappear.

Somewhere in the middle of that, though, you spend half an hour with the Winter Soldier. He comes to see you: the other girls in the class are hideously jealous. Who else gets visits in the Red Room? Let alone from the famous, the legendary, the decorated Winter Soldier?

It isn't enough time for him to take you anywhere, so the two of you step into an empty classroom. Snow is falling outside through bare, black trees, and he wears the winter uniform of an Army colonel. He looks younger than you remember, and he comments that you look older. It's true that you're taller. You come up to his shoulder; you look at him with clear eyes, and he takes in your Red Room trainee uniform -- the white blouse, the gray dress, the two long, crimson-red ribbons knotted in your hair.

"They say you have excellent marks," he says.

"I do all right," you reply, studying him, noticing the slight hitch in the way he holds his shoulder. In class, you've read about the metal arm. How was it that you never noticed it when he had you wrapped up in his coat, sitting in the car and waiting for the dawn?

"You could do with some improvement in sharpshooting. You'll never make a sniper."

"I'll have you for that," you say, and it surprises you how much you like his face when it lights up with a smile.

That night, at evening exercises, one of the other girls shoves you; you fall down and cry out and spend the rest of the night in a conditioning chamber as punishment.

...

"I'll have you for that."

Years later, you're in a room with the Winter Soldier. The two of you look the same age now.

...

You're standing in an alley next to a truck tunnel near the train station, and you have the videophone in hand, and you pull the trigger and --

Nothing happens. You pull again. Nothing happens, except a faint, dry click.

"Nat," a voice says, and you whip the gun out of your mouth and point it down to the end of the alley.

Clint is standing there, bow and arrow on his back, wearing a black jacket, with his head bare to the rain. He holds out a magazine with bullets in it. The one in the gun is empty, though loaded with dummies, so that the weight feels right.

You look at him; he looks back at you. You wonder whether you can get rid of the dummy gun, get your real gun and get it in your mouth before he drops the magazine, gets his bow, and knocks the gun out of your hand. You weigh the odds and put them about 50-50, but Clint probably has --

"There's another way out of this," he says, softly, and comes towards you with his hand stretched out.

Somewhere, a siren starts up. Not police. Ambulance, maybe?

"What does Bucky have over you?" Clint says, coming closer, hand still stretched out with the bullets in it, as though you're a wild animal that eats gun magazines.

"He doesn't have anything over me, but do you know what he's put into Steve Rogers?" You put the gun away, because if Clint wanted to drop you, he almost certainly has snipers posted up on the roofs. "They used to give it to us in the conditioning chambers to make us weak. As punishment. I didn't know that it would work on Captain America, but I guess the Red Room's work is close enough to the Super Soldier Serum."

"We guessed as much."

"But you're not going to let me do it."

"We're not going to let you kill yourself," Clint says, and he's standing on front of you now, an arm's reach away. You think about how you would take his guns away from him -- drop in, a quick strike against his jaw, a jab on one side. You could get to his thigh holster and maybe pull his gun. Or will Bucky count it if you die by SHIELD sniper?

"You realize that if he doesn't get me, he's going to kill Captain America, right?"

Clint says, softly, now closer than an arm's reach away. "He already thinks you're dead. Look at the videophone."

You turn the videophone over, and --

...

Years later, you're in a room with the Winter Soldier. The two of you look the same age now, but what does your physical age matter? After what the Red Room has done to you, after the games the Red Room has played on him with cryogenic freezing, aging will never have real meaning to either of you again, and he kisses you, gently, on the mouth. Softly, he touches the place on the back of your head where the red ribbons used to be tied in your hair, and softly, he touches you on the cheek. You touch the medals on his chest and rest your hand against his metal arm.

You saved his life when you were fifteen, after he saw what full Red Room training meant and subsequently refused to deliver someone up to the same life that he sent you to. You saw to it they only put him in cryogenic storage, rather than executed in a room. They bring him out of the ice for the occasional solo mission, but mostly to work with you. Is it strange if he knew you when you were eight? Is it strange to kiss him, when your last memory of being fully human involves being wrapped in his coat, shivering a little in the pre-dawn cold, listening to him tell you that you will try to be brave, and you will try to be strong, but you cannot be brave or strong enough, and he won't hold it against you?

You remember him in the hallway, smiling when you joked about him being your backup.

It's summer outside; the trees outside are green. He kisses you again. You unbutton his jacket, and the two of you lay down on his narrow bed together. Since it's Moscow, it stays light deep into the evening, and you are going out again to kill in the morning, but for tonight --

This could be any number of summer nights through four decades.

The Red Room orders you to marry someone for cover, and you do. You even like him.

Love is for children. When your chance to leave came on a rainy afternoon in Budapest, you left and told yourself, swore to yourself, that you would never look back.

...

"Does he like men?" the Winter Soldier asks that afternoon in the park.

"You were his childhood friend," you say back to him. "Don't you remember?" Your head is on his stomach; sunlight is warm on your feet, but only dappled on your face, because there is a tree shading most of him and the upper half of you. You feel lazy. Twenty feet off, Steve was tossing a ball back to some kids, but was coaxed into playing a step or two of football with them.

"Things change since childhood."

You twist around a little, prop yourself on your elbow, look at him. "You never liked men."

He looks back at you, but doesn't say anything. You pick a strand of grass, and when he still doesn't say anything, you laugh and lie back down.

...

"What promises can you make?" you say.

"None," the child with the bow says. "But if you put those cuffs on and don't try to escape, I'll put an arrow through the eye of anyone who tries to hurt you."

...

The Winter Soldier leans on an old psychological trigger, and you put the gun in your mouth. There is no green monster to spit the bullet back out, but Clint is there, and you turn over the videophone and look at the expression on the Winter Soldier's face. In the background, Steve lies on the floor, gasping and holding his stomach. He looks shrunken. He looks old.

You look back up at Clint, and he no longer looks like a child. His eyes are cool. They consider you.

"How did you do that?" you ask.

"He's very, very good, but he's been asleep for twenty years," Clint says. "The lab guys set up an interference to counter-broadcast fake video. They've also cracked the encryption on the video feed, so we know where he is."

"How did you know the location of my cache?"

Another man would smile or look sad or smug, and you catch maybe a hint of -- some kind of feeling moving across Clint's face, but by the time you notice, it's gone. After it, he just looks ready to work. "We've worked together for almost twenty years."

He looks up, makes a few quick hand gestures to communicate to the snipers that he does, in fact, have stationed up on the rooftops.

Love is for --

...

You are first through the window; the Winter Soldier blocks your first strike, but he spent the past fifty years in and out of ice, while you were practicing, training, getting better. He would have been your equal twenty years ago, but it's a long time past then, and by the time the rest of the force comes through the door, you have him on his back, cuffed, with a gun shoved into his mouth. He makes a noise, as if to say a word, and you jam it further into him.

Steve Rogers rolls onto his back and struggles for breath. Apparently, on him, the Red Room anti-serum rolls back enough of the Super Soldier Serum to give him asthma again.

...

Why did you leave to find the Winter Soldier?
...

"Really? You probably would've finished up your enlistment a couple years back. Smart, ex-Army Ranger, so you'd be working for a security firm, doing consulting. You'd have a house in a place like this. Nice car. Wife. Children. By this point, maybe even teenagers."

He keeps the binoculars trained on the playground. "No."

"You're lying," you say and shift in the driver's seat.

"Definitely not lying," he says. "You can't make me go to suburbia without you."

...

"Come on," you say. "Let's get you back into bed, under those covers."

You're much, much stronger than your frame would suggest, and Clint doesn't intend to be uncooperative, so it's easy to get him back in the bed. He really has sweated through his shirt, and you pull the sheets up and tuck them around him. You sit down next to him; he takes your hand, closes his eyes, and says your name, in that order.

...

"Definitely not lying," he says. "You can't make me go to suburbia without you."

"I wouldn't try," you reply, and he doesn't say anything then, and that night, back at the safe house, when the two of you are in the kitchen alone and everyone has gone off to bed except for the two guys on watch duty, he still doesn't say anything, but he looks at you with his heart in his eyes, and you lean over the table and take his face in your hands and kiss him.

It's a summer night. Cicadas and crickets call in the dark, and Clint is in love with you. He has been in love with you for at least five years and called you Nat and Tasha, alternately, for three years of that.

When you leave SHIELD, even though it's with Nick Fury's permission and the Council's blessing, when you drop him to the grate with the paralyzers and leave him face-down to choke to death if help doesn't arrive in time --

...

The two of you have sex only a handful of times in all the years that you work together, but for the relationship that the two of you have, for the kind of lives you live -- it's enough, and you still remember that first time in the safe house. You were on your back, and he was on top. You remember the light of the hallway light through the door; you remember that everyone in the house was using the same soap and shampoo, and you could smell it on him, on you, in his hair, in yours. He kissed you and didn't seem to want to stop, and you remember how he lay in the crook of your arm, lips against your skin.

You come home from Russia when Coulson says that Clint has been compromised.

Banner and Stark meet and talk science; you sit on the side and pull up the only picture you can easily access of him, the one of him in his SHIELD dossier. You face down Loki, and you are not surprised when he throws back the worst of the stories you've told Clint about yourself. Why would you be? Why would you be angry at Clint for betraying you that way? You're not. You've heard what the spear can do, and while you let tears come to your eyes, while you make your voice tremble, you keep a core of cold, burning anger inside you as a counterweight.

The night you find Clint on the floor, after he has fallen asleep, you kiss the back of his hand before going back to your room. The night on the top reaches of the helicarrier before you go, you kiss him on the forehead, on each cheek, then on the mouth. You have the electric prods that you'll use on Banner in your pockets; you've arranged your exit from the Helicarrier, and you remember the look on Clint's face when you pulled away.

You remember the way the paralyzer took his body when you used it on him.

When you pass him in the hallways now, he looks at you, nods, and then moves on his way, talking to his trainees, discussing logistics with Maria Hill, tapping into the comm system to check on weapons status. He removed the bugs in his room that you used to make sure he was all right; he deleted your access to his quarters and files.

Love is for --

...

Why did you leave to find the Winter Soldier?

...

You remember Steve Rogers lying on his back and watching you have sex with the man who had been his best friend.

...

One week afterwards, you're sitting in the medbay outside Bucky's unit, feet folded underneath you, armchair facing Bucky's bed. Steve Rogers comes in. He looks mostly healed. Mostly recovered.

"I hear they used to give it to Red Room trainees," he says.

"Did Bucky tell you that?"

Steve looks through the industrial strength plas-glass at Bucky, sleeping in the gurney, strapped down. "He said something about it, but I read the rest in the medical report they wrote on me." Then, Steve looks back at you. "I heard he activated an old Red Room trigger."

"It was partially the trigger. Partially -- something else."

"Have they fixed it?"

"They think it was a one time use." You pause for a moment. "Did he tell you that when I defected, I left him behind? I didn't even try to take him with me."

"Yes. Did he tell you that I let him fall?"

"No, but I knew from his file in the Red Room."

He is still looking at your face, but you don't say anything else. His face is hard to read, but he sits with you for a very, very long time outside Bucky's unit. In fact, there is a change in shift, but who is going to kick Captain America and Black Widow out of the medbay? The two of you sit through the shift change, then some time beyond. Bucky never stirs, and after what feels like an indescribably long time, you stand. Steve follows you.

You look at him. He looks at you.

You leave. He comes with you.

Love is for children. Giving up is for fools.

 

All the good ideas are from [personal profile] destronomics. Seriously. ALL THE GOOD IDEAS. ALL THE GOOD LINES. IS It A GOOD LINE? IT'S FROM HER. Though the bit about Natasha saving Bucky because he can't deliver a girl to the Red Room, and then him getting sent to the icing machines afterwards is a spin on an episode from one of the Brubaker Captain America/Bucky issues, where he can't kill a guy in front of his daughter and Black Widow has to take the kid away before he'll do it. Once she does, no problemo, and no explanation of what she does with the kid -- so I wanted to do a spin that was focused more on Natasha and her reasons for doing it and what the Red Room actually does to people.

(no subject)

Date: 2012-05-09 04:21 pm (UTC)
prosodi: (Default)
From: [personal profile] prosodi
Well I am just absolutely PLEASED AS PUNCH that I could have any hand in this whatsoever because it's just. AAH. NATASHA. STEVE. BUCKY. CLINT. EVERYONE. ALL OF MY EMOTIONS.

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