Shattered Mirror

December 27, 2016:

Bucky Barnes goes church and finds a whole lot of soul-searching he wasn't looking for.

Gotham, St. Lawrence Cathedral

St. Lawrence Cathedral is an opulent Catholic Church in Gotham

Characters

NPCs: None.

Mentions: Zatanna-Zatara Batman

Mood Music: [*\# None.]


Fade In…

Gotham.

Night.

St. Lawrence Cathedral is sprawling and beautiful, the kind of Catholic Church that is filled to the brim with guilt and all the trappings of a solemn night, even though almost no one is inside.

Long lines of pews frame the central walkway - enough to hold hundreds - and a royal red carpet paves the way between them to the altar at the front of the Church. A place to kneel and light candles and say a prayer accounts for most of the night's foot traffic, those mourning loss or lamenting missed opportunities in the wake of the holiday season.

Far to many families grew farther, instead of closer, at this time of year. To one side is access for confession, something that is kept to odd hours, but they are the hours in which people are comfortable in bearing their soul. And so even though it's past 8pm, and even though Azalea is more inclined to be out in the night doing /other/ things, the little room she has in the rectory behind the church must be paid for.

And so she sweeps. Head down, the shirt she wears over her usual tank top and baggy pants is a matter of propriety, but she does not dare drift from her normal color palette of drab grey and black. Her back is to the entrance, and so she could just be anyone with a broom - though a glance over her shoulder here and there keeps her habit of preparedness alive.

There's something in the Winter Soldier, distant and quiet and buried deep, that feels deeply uncomfortable crossing the threshold of a church. He ignores it. He's here on business.

Not the usual business, though. He's dressed down in a simple jacket and jeans, not a (visible) weapon anywhere to be seen on his body. His appearance, carriage, demeanor… all are indistinguishable from all the civilians around him, because many years ago he was one. An American just like them. Truly the perfect agent for Soviet espionage.

Head down against the cold, a cap pulled low to corral his hair back out of his face, the Soldier trudges up the steps to the cathedral, affecting the resigned demeanor of the kind of man who would need to stop in at church at 8 o'clock at night.

Some reflex makes him remove his hat the moment he enters a building.

Once he's in, he looks around, then takes a quiet left to the back rows of pews. Sidling down one, he stops halfway, sitting down and drooping his head in an attitude both of tiredness and contemplation.

This posture allows him, quietly, to slide something out of the back of the bench in front of him.

It had been more than a week since Zatanna had the thing inside her in a mystical web, anchoring it. Soothing it. Less rage. More focus. Time eats at all things, and while The Devil Inside was a glutton somehow sated, it had had just about enough of being caged.

The effect on Azalea had been almost liberating. Her eyes wandered - hands too, and she remembered again what it was to be a monster trapped in a skin that could barely contain her true nature. More than ever she felt at one with the creature she shared a body with.

She felt restless. She felt lethal.

With her senses dialed to eleven, it was an uneasy rise of her hackles that first alerted her. Mid-sweep, her mind turned to menace, and her head gave the slow turn of someone searching for the source of her discontent.

Maybe she'd heard the way he walked, or recognized the rugged cut of his jawline. Or maybe she could just tell when another predator was nearby, wallowing in the feeding grounds.

A breath. Then another. Sweep. Sweep. She had to reign it in. This was home. This was /home/, and people were here. As much as she might try, however, Bucky might notice. Might see her walking, head down, broom in one hand, moving behind that last pew until she enters his blindspot.

It's that moment when a footstep should fall, but does not. That moment when time ticks past the point of no return, when suspicion of malcontent fades into the brief window between notion and action. Something isn't right.

Whatever the Soldier might expect, neither Azalea or the Assassin might have expected what happens next: Her hand on his shoulder, tiny and delicate. Not a punchers hand, despite her bruised knuckles. The squeeze of someone who does not intend to harm, half curled over metal, half curled over flesh, a reminder of the Soldier's duality.

"If you came for me, we really shouldn't do this inside."

There is no change in the Winter Soldier's behavior to indicate the moment he, in turn, noticed Azalea and became aware of who she was, though he assuredly has by now. He works on silently, palming whatever it is he came to retrieve, sliding it away into a pocket.

It's really not anything dramatic. With Batman suppressing the creation of proper bases of operation in the area, the Soldier has resorted to brief meetings and dead drops to get things he needs.

It might at first seem an insult to her— his casual decision to continue brazenly with his business even though he has noticed she is right there— but as she draws closer, slight hints he is aware of her, tracking her progress, resolve into clearer focus. He does not look at her, but he can hear her.

She stops in his blindspot, so he listens to her breathe.

In the end, what happens is not what he expects. A hand on the shoulder was last on the list of things he thought she might do. He tenses palpably under her hand, but for whatever reason— maintenance of cover or otherwise— he does not attack her.

"Not here for you," he says eventually. His voice rasps with low, rough disuse. He is both different and not different from the previous times she has seen him. That latent danger is still there, but also an odd passiveness that she has never previously seen. "Unless you push me. But you're a smart girl. Figured you learned better by now."

They aren't far from the end of the pew. She takes her broom with her, moves to fill the space between the very end and where Bucky sits, perhaps a little to close for the comfort of most - but there's a mission at stake, right? The broom comes to lean against her own shoulder, and the way she lounges into place, the way she simmers low, gives up any game she might be playing.

Azalea is not ready for nor preparing to make an attack, mulling over the words until the corner of her mouth turns up. "You work with purpose. You drive through people like they were on your train tracks. You broke my back when you dropped me into that dumpster. Shot me point blank." She turns to look at him, and though she doesn't expect a reaction, she leans in anyway.

Her breath might almost tickle his ear. "And yet, here I am. It isn't about power, longevity, or anything else. When I touched your head, I didn't know what to make of what I saw. Took a friend helping to figure it out. Until I heard what he said when you fell from the train. Until I heard what /you/ said on the way down."

It's here that she swallows, afraid to press to fast, to hard. Despite her posturing, her ability to survive has mostly been a kind accident, though from Soldier's perspective she might appear to be a cockroach that re-inflates itself and waddles on after being stepped on.

"I understand. More than any of them. I know you miss Steve."

It might be tossing a bowling ball onto a land mine, but she has to try. The next time they meet, if he doesn't kill her right now, will absolutely be a violent confrontation. Their lives just don't allow alternatives.

Blue eyes finally look up and assess Azalea plainly as she comes closer. He reads her body language, sees the lack of hostility, blinks, and then looks away again.

He remains passive as she speaks. He does not fidget as he sits: does not reach for a Bible to fiddle with, mess with his hair, look around, or do any of the other things that a man might do when being spoken to in what is frankly a rather tense situation. He remains immobile as a machine. As the engine of violence she, in fact, describes. An engine which ran over her twice. Broke her back. Shot her point blank.

Not an eyelash flickers at any of it. Not even when she leans in close to say that despite all that… here she is.

He doesn't react up until she reminds him of that unpleasant experience he has been trying to forget. The things he saw and felt when she touched him. He tenses, visibly, palpably. The soft grumble of metal and gears, hidden under his sleeve, heralds the thin ice she's skating along.

She says Steve.

"I don't know what you saw," he grates. "Or what you put in my head, but tricks aren't going to save your life or keep me from my work, nor some— sick joke—"

Quiet conversation is no longer her preferred playground, but something about this, the standoff of propriety and whatever his mission parameters are against the whirlwind hiding beneath both of their exteriors - it thrills her. The dangerous game. She can hear his arm, and her pupils dilate.

/Focus/.

'Sick Joke'

Her head tilts as the words stutter out, and she searches his face for the key, the code, reading him in much the same way she read his the coil of tension building in his body in the moments before he shot her.

"I'm twenty one. My name is Azalea. I'm not trying to trick you. I don't have the creativity left to make up a story as completely fucked up as yours."

He'll feel it then, over his flesh and blood hand, delicate fingers curling from her place at his right. "I'll tell you what I saw if you let me." The offer comes with that physical contact, a grounding of the mortal coil. Tonight, here in church, they're just another couple of lost causes of flesh and blood and maybe a little metal.

Unless she's crossed the line. Then it's likely this church will be going right to hell with the both of them.

His body language slowly starts to speak of anger. And that arm, the one that has hurt Azalea several times now— it starts to speak too, its muted whir hissing under his sleeve with the threat of a rousing snake.

Yet he still doesn't attack. It's not clear whether it's because of the mission parameters, whether because he does not want to risk detection at what's meant to be a simple discreet dead drop, whether the setting speaks to some buried aspect of him that was taught never to start shit in a church…

Or whether something about what she's saying resonates with him more than he's letting on.

Eventually his head turns, his eyes glaring up at her as she outlines who she is. As she tells him she's not making it up, because she doesn't have the creativity to make up a story as fucked as his is. He stiffens as she reaches in to take his hand, a muscle in his jaw flickering, a twitch tensing the corners of his eyes.

She'll tell him if he lets her.

He does not say anything. He remains frozen, his aspect suddenly not dissimilar from a deer caught in headlights, locked in that limbo between his programming urging him to attack, and something else— something buried beneath— struggling to restrain that killing impulse. Struggling because it wants to hear this, to cross-check it, to compare it to those things that sometimes cross a fractured mind in dreams.

Stories create their own music, and so do the actions they all take when in the thick of it. A soundtrack to go with deeds great or small, right or wrong. Media today could not keep up with the thumping of Soldier's heart against the mechanical whir of his jittering, restless arm or the counter-beat of Azalea's pulse thrumming from her thumb to the space between Soldier's thumb and forefinger. The music of biological and mechanical backdrops her eyes, crystal and blue and unblinking as they lock onto The Soldier and reel him in with a predator's attention.

"They drag you from some place stiff and cold, and it aches in the back of your mind. The same questions. The same confusion. Then the chair. I know…"

Her head tilts, just a little, and her expression softens, even as her grip tightens, leaning in just a little closer. Someone watching might mistake them for lovers who chose the most inopportune moment to be intimate.

"..it's different, a little different each time. The arm rests. The way you sink in. Your muscles aren't ready yet, but they help you along. The fire starts, against your head. It curls your spine." Tears rim her eyes and she leans back a little, mouth slack for a moment, because she's remembering, as much as telling a story.

"But that's the part you know already. Because they do it all the time. Drag you to the chair. Shock you. Say the words. Drag you to the chair. Shock you. Say the /words/. But you never forget the cold. It's like.. they remind you every time they're done with you. I don't see that part. Don't understand it. They transport you in freezer trucks, maybe?"

Her voice trails, as if she has more to say, but she watches his expression, waits for /permission/.

It's that word that gets his attention and keeps his wandering mind locked. Cold. He knows the cold. He has lived for 70 years in the cold. The Russians were simply making some poetry when they called their new creation the Winter Soldier— naming their new great weapon after the greatest ally they have always had in war— but the poetry soon became a painful, frigid truth.

For centuries, the Russians have had nothing but their winter. And they made the life of James Barnes a long, horrible winter to match.

Blue eyes turn towards Azalea as she describes things that she cannot know. Experiences he suffers alone, over and over, time after time, witnessed only by men and women thousands of miles away. Who would never have talked. Who could not have told her. If he needed proof she was seeing into his head, she has given it.

For the first time, Azalea sees a flicker of uncertainty in the cold blue eyes of the Winter Soldier.

Then it's gone, and with it… something else, something indefinable. A thin layer of something seems to strip away. His gaze glasses, staring off into the middle distance, going far away as things try painfully to reconcile in his mind— and fail.

It's like they remind him of the cold every time they're done, she says. But she doesn't understand it— she doesn't see it.

"You don't see it because I sleep," he murmurs, his voice distant.

"You slept when you hit the ground."

Red. White. Blue. And more white, the white of winter, swirling around them both as the wind blasted by. Metal fails and so does friendship - emotional bonds can only do so much against the harsh realities of the world.

Azalea's eyes turn wild, her heart pounding, her fingers curling over Bucky's fist, and as she searches his face and finds those signs that something is breaking through layers and layers of over-written memory and compliance locks, she presses on. "He cries out for you. You cry out for him. Bucky, he says. Steve, you say. You aren't afraid in the moment just before you hit. You're glad you protected him. You love him. You miss him. You sleep."

She's trembling as it rips through her mind again, eyes fluttering, and it takes her a moment to snap her self from the pull of it all. "There's a little guy on a porch. Your brother maybe. You feel the same way about him, and that thing I shouldn't say. I didn't realize at the time that you were saying it. Not until later. I.." She shakes her head. Leans back.

It's all she's got. Fragments of a lost cause: The life of Bucky Barnes. That's okay, Azalea's a lost cause to, and it's why she's fighting so hard in this moment to try and help him remember. "They don't own you, Bucky. You were right when you said none of this would save me. But I don't give a fuck. Maybe it'll save you."

It's not an implant. It's not a trick. He thought it was. But she knows things she isn't supposed to know. Knows things she can't know. And if she knows them through touch, through looking in his mind, as she claims…

…what else does she know that is real, after all?

Those half-remembered names and images that he sometimes catches, inserted between his other thoughts like brief snapshots in a roll of film? Are those real? The things he remembers doing and seeing that were not missions, that were not killings, that were not the insides of labs and underground bunkers and glass stasis tubes? The things that exist outside of the life and identity as a HYDRA operative that he has heretofore never questioned?

Are those real, too?

She speaks to him. His body is motionless, his face blank, but his eyes are fluent with the confusion in his head. They flick back and forth, searching through things only he can see, looking inwards in desperate search for something that just cannot be found— that exists just beyond the periphery of what his recollection can reach. His head eventually tilts, just slightly, a frown claiming his features: frustration knit across his brows as he finally, just barely touches something that he cannot fully grasp.

She calls him by name.

His sudden movement is explosive and quick, too quick to register, too quick to respond to. He's jolted out of his seat and retreated five feet away down the length of the pew by the time perception catches up, his shoulders heaving as if he's just run a minute mile, his eyes staring and wide in the distrust of a frightened, trapped animal with fangs bared against some vast, looming threat.

"That's not me," he says, his voice hoarse. "It is not… me."

So much talking. Reminiscing. The Devil Inside had grown tired of it anyway. This was more familiar. Better. This was what it lived for. With a gaze that's half-lidded, she watches the retreat and then rises. It's a phoenix from the ashes, fists curling in a raging resolve she barely keeps in check.

Her teeth grit for a moment and she stamps the Creature down. She isn't done talking.

"Prove it.

Such a damning challenge in so few words, but she's operating on a higher instinct here - someone who wants to prove anything has to seek knowledge. She can't stop him. She doesn't bother standing between him and the door, just him and everyone else in this church. Her home.

A tick, a beat, and she squares with him, hoping for the best and expecting the worst. "Don't go back to them. /Prove it/."

Something changes. The struggle ceases, one side of the split personalities within the man before Azalea having finally, decisively won. For now. The agonized inabilty to recall, the confusion… they hitch, freeze, and then smooth away.

His back straightens, head lifting. His eyes frost over, cold and remote and blue as the empty sky miles above the ground.

"You misunderstand," the Winter Soldier replies. "Whatever you're trying to tell me I am… that is not me."

A tic flickers in the muscle of his jaw. A moment later, the line of it draws taut. His eyes dull. "There is… work to do."

He turns his back and walks for the door.

Every fiber of her being wants to give chase, blood rushing to her skin as the fire of conflict fuels her to take a step after him. Again she beats it down, teeth gritting, her inner demon stewing for violence of one sort of another. Her lips part in a ragged pant, and somehow she turns her back as he stalks out the door with his terminator's gait.

"Fuck."

She snatches up the broom and glances sidelong at the one or two people who were kneeling in quiet reverie, now watching her fume and proceed in her own stalk towards the door that will lead her to her room.

She has to make a phone call. Needs a steadying influence in her life.

If only The Soldier knew how alike they were in that sentiment.

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