Flicker of Hope

April 07, 2017:

In which Isa Reichert is visited by the Winter Soldier, and unexpectedly earns the protection of James Buchanan Barnes.

The Bronx - New York City

The only borough located primarily on the mainland of New York, the Bronx is the most city-like of all the boroughs. High rises and heavily traveled streets mark this area of the city. The sounds of the streets hold a music influenced by island nations to the south - Puerto Rico, some Cuba, and even further to the islands of Jamaica.

Located in South Bronx, Yankee Stadium is the home of the New York Yankees. In it's present incarnation it is a full, modern sports arena capable of holding about 50,000 sports fans (though this varies depending on the configuration and sport being hosted). This stadium opened in 2009, replacing the previous one which had been completed in 1923.

The Bronx River Art Center is a nonprofit organization offering art classes in various media, exhibitions and studio space to artists of the Bronx and surrounding areas. The classes center mostly on fine arts and digital media. Artistic events of various flavors are offered throughout the year.





Mood Music: [*# ]

Fade In…

Every borough has its own character and demographic that make it a unique slice of the city. The Bronx is no exception, with its immigrants from the sunny island nations. Like every other borough, it also has its undesirable side and its questionable neighbourhoods. It's precisely in one of these questionable neighbourhoods that many people decide to hide, not quite going underground, but losing themselves in the urban decay and undesirables.

But as it turns out, Raisa Ivanovna Yakovleva was never afraid of the things that go 'bump' in the night… or the day. There's nothing to fear here but fear itself.

According to SHIELD's rosters, they hired Isa Reichert, a widow searching for a better life in America. Only the highest of the group's echelon have access to who she really is, and where she really comes from. A former test pilot of the Russian Air Force, Raisa had been entrusted with the fastest, most powerful aircraft and military hardware that money could buy.

Her smiling face graced the blurry prints of newspaper articles singing the praises of the military-industrial complex; her feats in the air were matched only by the sophistication of the machine she piloted. She made them do what she wanted and enjoyed every second of it. They sang like a Stradivarius violin in the hands of a virtuoso.

Then came the winter: A string of unfortunate accidents that reduced her life to rubble. The last was the greatest insult and injustice. It robbed her of her right eye, disfiguring her entire body and compromising her vision.

She rehabilitated herself, teaching herself how to fly all over again on her own time, pouring years of effort and the sullen determination of the damned into the effort. When the Air Force refused to reassign her for her disability, she resolved to do what was necessary to do the one thing that still made her feel alive.

So she stole from them.

She took secrets from the databases that she had access to, and she brought with her the most cutting-edge advances in Russian military hardware, to America. She weighed her options amidst the haze of cigarette smoke and a bottle of cheap vodka, and decided that SHIELD was her best option.

In exchange for the potential of valuable engineering advances, she asked of them only one thing – to let her fly. She might never be able to fly the sorts of aircraft she was used to, but a quinjet would still get her into the air. It wouldn't take too much acclimation for her to readjust to its controls.

Thus has Raisa Ivanovna Yakovleva found herself a place within the Big Apple.

It's an attractive place, if one doesn't consider the disrepair her brownstone building has fallen into. Her furniture is cheap but functional, and trends first towards minimalism and then towards the same neutral colour palette. If not for those few pieces, it might look like the place is unlived-in. The kitchen is tidy, the living room is tidy, and the single bedroom's plain bedding is made up with military precision.

Isa herself is standing in the kitchen, eyeing the fridge in clear disapproval, with a frown and her single eye hooded. She's wearing a plain grey tank top, which bares both toned muscle and the scars of hideous burns; the wounds must have covered most of the right side of her body, tracing from the scarring that ravages her face all the way past the line of her blue jeans' belt. Scuffed combat boots complete the ensemble.

A faded dove-grey patch covers where her right eye should be, but her hair's grown back, a vibrant auburn red. Even her eyelashes are red. Her single eye is a piercing blue, the crisp clear cold of a winter's afternoon.

Right now she's got her arms folded, one hip leaned against the counter, drumming the scarred fingers of her right hand against the unmarked skin of her left forearm. A cigarette dangles from her lower lip. "Damn it." She sighs smoke, cursing in Russian; voice hardened and grizzled from too many years of drinking and smoking. "I really didn't want to go grocery shopping this time of day…"

A little over a quarter century ago now, a man named Dimitry Ivanovich Rudchenko arranged the fire sale of a highly valuable asset to try to bolster the cash-strapped and dying Soviet Union. In the end it wasn't enough to save the USSR – nothing was, at that point – and so it just meant that Russia lost one of its greatest weapons and gained little in exchange.

Of course, however, the buyer had equal right to possession, and certainly approached the transaction with that kind of attitude. They were half responsible for the creation of the Winter Soldier to begin with.

Russia didn't quite see it the same way. There were never any particular repercussions for Rudchenko – the decision to make the sale was not solely his own, even if he was part of it and was ultimately the one tasked with executing it – but in the years following, he could feel the unpopularity of the decision in the mood around him, could imagine cold eyes on his back at all times. Watching and waiting for the perfect time to slip the knife in.

Like many other former Soviet officials who found they had no place left after the fall of the USSR, he fled. He sought refuge in America, became a citizen, established a new life in New York City. It was a solitary life, but then some ghosts crowd too close to allow the maintenance of a family, and there are other ways to get comfort and companionship without leaving paper trails.

James Buchanan Barnes, via Jane Foster's prodigious talent for hacking into places she eminently is not supposed to be in, reads about all these things. He gets an address.

The address is, just slightly, wrong, but he doesn't know that.

The apartment at said address sighs around Isa with general rickety disrepair, a vaguely disappointing end to a long day. It is dark and completely silent, other than her periodic inhales as she finishes her cigarette – other than the raspy, low murmur of her voice as she bemoans her empty refrigerator in grumbling Russian.

Other than the slightest, faintest whisper of a sidearm's hammer being cocked. The sound is exactly level with the back of her head.

"Zhenshina," a man's voice murmurs at her back. Whoever he is, his Russian is flawless. "<We have some things to discuss.>"

Some twenty to thirty years ago, Dimitry Ivanovich Rudchenko arranged the sale of an asset, but he couldn't have had any way to know what eventual repercussions his actions would have—

The cold, clean sound of a hammer cocking is one familiar to her, one that she hears in her dreams. For so long she's expected someone to infiltrate her apartment and dispatch her. There's no way that her actions hadn't disgraced or humiliated someone in the military world that she had left behind. Someone in that position would take action. They would clean up the loose end that she represents.

Only a second later does it compute what was actually said, and the Russian is so fluid that it's almost a joy to listen to, if it were any other situation.

Isa reacts on pure instinct.

She doesn't throw herself at her attacker. That would be stupid; he's holding a gun. She doesn't reach for her own firearm; her Stetchkin is in a safe, unloaded, with its safety firmly engaged. Running wouldn't buy her much.

So, Isa does the next thing she can think of. She turns around, very slowly, just enough to look at the man standing in her apartment. Anger and humiliation burn at the back of her throat; having someone break into her home, however much she might have expected it, is a violation of her basic sense of safety.

"<Who the fuck are y—>"

She does not finish. Her sentence dies in a sharp intake of breath. Her single eye snaps wide, and she clutches at the counter, sagging a little. Her heart slams against her ribs in what must be close to triple-time; she can feel her blood pressure soar.

There are no words. What do you say when you find out that the boogeyman you heard about as a child is real? That he's here, in your own apartment, and you're his next target? There is nothing that can articulate that.

So she backs against the counter, one hand fumbling behind her – she comes up with a kitchen knife, which is probably a laughable counter-offensive to a legend like the Winter Soldier.

Isa Reichert has been living with a very long string of very poor life choices, and so she adds one more of them to hte list – and with that steak knife clutched like salvation itself, she lunges for the Winter Soldier.

He might be a living nightmare in the flesh, but she'll be damned if she's going to go down without a fight.

"<Get out of my house!>" Adrenaline and fear are one hell of a motivator. Her voice actually cracks as she screams and throws herself at her assailant. "<I did nothing wrong! They left me with no choice!>"

Few people alive know the Winter Soldier's actual face. But plenty of people – especially in the former Soviet Union, in Russia – know his look when he's dressed to kill, and right now he's certainly dressed for that. Plenty know about the rumor he isn't even truly fully human, his left arm – perhaps his entire left side – forged of titanium and steel instead of flesh. Plenty know that to see the red star stamped on silvered metal means death is moments away.

It was all part of the legend. The Winter Soldier was a monster under the bed to his own adopted people, just as much as he was to the West against which he was deployed.

Isa Reichert is old enough to have been a child during the last glory days of the Winter Soldier's involuntary service to the USSR. Old enough to know the ghost stories. Old enough to remember the fear when sometimes, men and women on their own side of the Iron Curtain would vanish – having stepped wrong in some way so badly that the Winter Soldier himself reached out to erase them from record.

Now he has come for her. It is him, indisputably: the star on his bared left arm proves it. She is his latest target. It could almost be flattering – everyone knew he only ever emerged to hunt the biggest prey. But why—

His frost-blue eyes, over the mask obscuring the lower half of his face, offer no answers. Only the cold of the grave, and the dire focus of a machine intent on some bloody purpose.

So she does the only thing she can, pitiable as it might seem. She defends herself against the Winter Soldier with nothing but a kitchen knife. He watches her assault almost quizzically, blue eyes tracking her movements so closely it's clear he's seeing faster than she can even move, anticipating her movements before she can make them—

—and with a sickening twist of the world around her, she's intercepted in the middle of her lunge by that lethal left arm. He turns to the left with her momentum, guiding her through most of the rest of her original path, before a sudden jerk arrests her body and flips her over to slam her prone on her back to the floor. He follows her down smoothly, sinking to a mantling crouch over her, his knee moving to pin her knife hand down and his left hand shifting to staple her down by the throat.

The gun is held loosely in his right hand still, but it is no longer in play. He is not aiming to pin her so securely that she cannot breathe or speak, but there will be more than enough pressure in the unremitting steel seeking to collar her to suggest that could change really quick.

"<This need not be messy,>" he says. His voice is even, showing no exertion. His breathing has not quickened. His pulse is even and slow and unhurried as ever. "<Unless you force me to make it so. I want Dimitry Rudchenko. Where is he? Answer and live.>"

Although not very many people knew what the face beneath the name looked like, the name itself carried a tremendous amount of fear wherever it went. There were plenty of descriptions; somehow everyone knew what the red star against its silvered alloy looked like. Much like the popular image of the grim reaper, the people of Russia knew their spectre of death.

Some joked, halfway between amusement and apprehension, that the Winter Soldier could probably kill Death itself.

Even Isa knew the descriptions. She had eavesdropped as a child to quiet talk between her mother and father, listening when someone had vanished from either's place of work. The name 'Winter Soldier' had been spoken, although it hadn't held any meaning to her at the time. What would a child know of such adult matters?

She knows it now. Even with one eye missing, she can see the star on the arm; the cold and unrepentant eyes behind the half-mask. She can see the mechanical precision with which he moves.

No sooner does she think she might stand half a chance than the room lurches, and with a shout, Isa Reichert is hurled earthward, slamming against the cheap linoleum of her kitchen floor with enough force to make articles on the counter jump.

Someone downstairs starts hammering on the ceiling with the handle of a broom. Muffled shouts to 'have some goddamned decency' are dimly audible; then quiets.

She wants to call for help, but she can barely get enough air sawing through her throat just to breathe. She wants to lash out, but both of her arms are pinned. And the cold metal that constricts around her throat is a silent warning. He's letting her have just enough freedom to speak. It's a freedom he could take away very quickly, very permanently, and she knows it.

When he sinks down over her like some avenging angel of death, she shudders, trying to edge away from him, but he already has her immobile.

Bereft of options, Isa Reichert lies on the floor of her kitchen and stares at her assailant, single eye wide. For just a brief instant, there's a glimpse of the person who she used to be, the woman who hasn't become so embittered and despairing of the world – the look of a woman who wants to live, no matter what it takes, who believes deep down that there are things worth yet living for.

But that hope is beyond her now. The reality of the situation is sinking down with every spastic beat of her heart; every laboured breath. Instead of answering calmly and rationally as she had intended, with the dignity of a soldier, the one-eyed woman laughs. It's too breathy, too fast, too wild; the sound is all adrenaline and terror.

It's several shuddering breaths before she can speak clearly.

"<I'm pinned on the floor of my own goddamned apartment by the Winter-Fucking-Soldier, and you're telling me that this doesn't have to be messy.>" Again that laugh, voice rising too high, and Isa tries to shift away. There's no point. He has her pinned solidly. "<I don't think I'd be in a position to care about whether this gets messy or not. Go to Hell.>"

Once again she tries to struggle, to find some kind of leverage to get away from the nightmare that has her pinned. It's useless, but maybe the effort makes her feel a little better.

She stares up at him, terrified but still somehow defiant. "<Go to Hell!>" she snaps, with more feeling. "<I don't know who this fucking Rudchenko is; I've never heard the name of the motherless cur in my life. I promised Misha I'd go on my own terms, not hunted down like a fucking dog. But if you're going to kill me, fucking get it over with.>" She bares her teeth, more of a defiant snarl than a smile. "<I've waited a long time for this. I've waited to go back to him for so long. So long.>"

Her words say she's not afraid to die, but her eyes say differently. Her words and her eyes, at least, agree on one thing. There's no recognition whatsoever at the name of Dimitry Rudchenko.

What happened to him was obscene. What he was turned into was repugnant. If you asked James Buchanan Barnes a thousand times if he could go back in time and ensure he never became the Winter Soldier, his answer would be the same every single time. Of course he would. He wanted to return from war. He wanted to choose the shape of his life. Maybe he would have had a family. Maybe he would have continued to fight alongside Steve. But whatever he did, it would have been his choice.

But he can't. He must live with the fact choice was taken from him. He must live with the fact he is the Winter Soldier. And there are dark moments, private moments he has not spoken of to anyone save Jane, where he even takes a certain grim professional pride in what it was he became. It feels wrong, like some sort of Stockholm syndrome by which he copes with what was done to him, but it's there in his mind and heart nonetheless. He was the absolute best at something, even if that something was soaked in blood. He was a legend. And it was not just because of what was put into his veins, nor what was fed into his head. He was good.

The proof is here, in how even continents and oceans and decades away from his prime, the mere whisper of his title induces so much fear.

He makes his demands. She answers with stunning defiance despite the fear in her eyes. It stirs a grudging respect in him, though little of it shows. "<Of course it doesn't have to be messy,>" he replies patiently, as if elucidating to a child. "<Breaking all your bones is messy. Ripping out your nails is messy. Killing you is messy. Getting an answer from you and letting you go, however, is not messy. It's very simple—>"

Go to hell, she says.

He lapses into silence. Those eyes study her closely as she insists she does not know this Dimitry Rudchenko. Something about the conviction in her voice or the look in her eyes – along with the fact this scenario of ratty apartment with a woman in it is really not what he expected – gives him enough pause to holster his gun, pull out a phone instead, and dash off a quick text.

It's to Jane. It's very simple. Cross check on our friend?

He keeps his eyes on Isa. "<You might not know Rudchenko,>" he finally allows. "<But you are running from something.>"

Across the city, Jane Foster's phone beeps with R2D2's familiar robotic chatter. Strewn along the couch, treading through one too-long sleeve of her hoodie to poke a tiny hand out the cuff, she fumbles for the device. She struggles not to take her eyes off the television. Because, seriously, tonight's Chopped is using /pork belly and cotton candy./ Eventually, with a sigh, she glances down. Her eyebrows pop up. Thirty seconds later, she has her laptop opened at her side.

After some minutes in their exchange, the Winter Soldier's smartphone lights with a return text:

Raisa Ivanovna Yakovleva. VVS Pilot. Defector? Pulled Kremlin docs – no treason charges but they want to. V v mad. Clean record before. Dead husband. Access log has trace route for a SHIELD dummy IP, seen this one before.

Do you like asiago cheese?

James frowns down at the text. How did she… well, Jane Foster. He probably doesn't want to know.

The return message is short. But no connections at all to who I'm looking for?

After a moment, he realizes he forgot something. There's a second message. Yes on cheese.

A beat. Then a text pops back:

Can't see anything.

Bacon mac n cheese when you get home then. xx

Once upon a time, Raisa Ivanovna Yakovleva had chosen the shape of her life, and she had been content with it. Her rise through the ranks had been nothing short of meteoric. Her career as a test pilot had not been her initial choice, but it had been incredibly satisfying. On some level she had even enjoyed the media attention, even if it wasn't specifically her that they had been interested in.

She'd had everything she could ask for – stability, a good home, a husband she was happy to grow old with – and then it had been taken from her, in a series of brutal accidents and freak happenstances. First her parents had been killed in an automobile accident. Then less than a week later her husband, a fellow pilot, had ridden his plane to the earth.

Part of her still suspected that, since there had been no body and no wreckage recovered, but at the time it had been a devastating blow. Then, her own accident had forced her to share his fate; she survived, but that had been more a cruelty to her than death would have been.

So she had picked up the pieces of her life, and with the fury and zeal of a martyr, she had painstakingly taught herself to fly again in spite of her handicap. All that effort, all that blood, sweat, and tears, had been for nothing. The last blow had come when the Air Force had told her, with infinite patience and wisdom, that she would never fly for them again. Perhaps she might be interested in a job in the civil sector?

With great dignity Isa had walked from the office with her head held high. She had proceeded to return to her apartment, crawl into a bottle of vodka, and it was several years before she found her way back out again.

She'd found her way here, which wasn't so bad at the time, but now she's starting to rethink coming to America.

"<I already gave you my answer!>" Isa's response is a defiant snarl, and for a brief instant she surges against the grip that holds her down with alarming force. It's not enough to break free, but it might be more than the Winter Soldier is expecting from his prey. "<I don't fucking know who this Rudchenko bastard is. I've never heard his fucking name before today!>"

…She's a feisty one, isn't she? It's true that she's terrified, and there's no mistaking the almost spastic shaking, well past the point of trembling. Yet she still has enough presence of mind to shout and threaten the very person who has her pinned on her own kitchen floor.

Maybe she's going to die like a dog, but she doesn't have to go quietly. Quiet was never really her style.

Once more the pilot struggles; it might be enough to break free from an ordinary attacker, and in any other circumstance her desperate strength might be surprising. It's not enough to break free, though. The only good it does for Isa is dig her shoulder blade even deeper into the cheap linoleum flooring of her kitchen.

The one-eyed woman sags back, panting; there's no point wasting her strength. It's no better than being held fast by a metal vise. Breathing hard, she weighs her nonexistent options for a few seconds. Her single eye flicks back up to the Winter Soldier, suspicious once more. "<What was that about?>"

In her experience, assassins don't usually stop to text while they have a target casually pinned against the floor. What the hell?

"<They all say they've already given me the answer,>" the Winter Soldier says, and his voice is hollow and cold as ice. His left arm is completely immovable even against her sudden desperate burst of struggling, though he does cut his eyes down at her in mild surprise at her strength. "<Half the time, I find they actually have not.>"

There seems to be just enough doubt in him, however, for him to pause long enough to… holster his weapon, take out his phone instead, and start texting. What kind of assassin texts while they have prey pinned down??

Assassins who don't want to kill the wrong person stop to text when they have prey pinned down, that's what kind. An oddly principled version of the Winter Soldier, then? Or just one with very strict mission parameters? Whatever the case, the exchange is quick at the least, and when it concludes he looks down at her with a sigh.

That arm finally relents. It's like being freed from the stranglehold of an industrial vise.

"<That was me checking into your story,>" he says. "<Raisa Ivanovna Yakovleva. Defector, huh? Came to SHIELD with some secrets to trade? I have killed a number of people like you, but I have no interest in you in particular. Damage the Motherland all you want. I will thank you for doing so.>"

He is silent a few moments. "<My apologies for the rough handling. I received information that indicated Rudchenko was here. It's clear he is not.>"

The pilot gathers the last of her strength one more time, and when the sudden pressure against her releases, the lack of resistance sends her sprawling. It's not very graceful; she's up, on her feet, and brandishing another knife at the Winter Soldier in the time it takes to draw a breath. Her breath saws against her throat. There's something wild and defiant in her eye.

Adrenaline is a hell of a drug.

But… there's doubt. He let her go. She's under absolutely no illusion that she was able to push him away. He consciously chose to release her. Now she finds herself wondering why. The tip of the knife droops, ever so slightly, but it's ready to raise again if need be. Something hardens in her gaze when he says her name. Not the assumed name she's been using in this country, as part of SHIELD – but her name.

Whatever she was going to say dies on her tongue. Damage the Motherland all you want, he tells her, but the words only draw a confused noise from the woman. Wouldn't he be the sort of person to put a bullet in her for disparaging the Motherland? But that's not at all what she sees in front of her.

The knife droops incrementally further.

"<You… what?>" Her tone is baffled; all defiance and rage gone. Isa's words are no more than a disbelieving croak. The knife drops from her hand, clattering on the floor; she slides down the back of the kitchen counter behind her to land on her rump, staring wide-eyed. "<Why would you… no, never mind. Misinformation?>" That single red brow creeps up towards her hairline, incredulous. "<The Winter Soldier, making a mistake? Well, I—I suppose that was in my favour, but…>"

James Barnes – not the Winter Soldier – looks up tiredly at Isa as, once released, she leaps to her feet brandishing the knife. He doesn't seem overly concerned, because she's a smart girl. She's realized already, by now, that he let her go, and she'll be wondering why. Why would the Winter Soldier suddenly heel with his fangs inches from his prey's throat?

Curiosity has killed many cats before Isa, and it makes her pause now.

Moreover, there's another reason to stop, to try to get to the bottom of this: the Winter Soldier knows her true name. That in itself wouldn't be too surprising – the Winter Soldier knows everything, of course he would know such trivial things as the details of her entire life, especially if she were his mark – but what is more surprising is that he follows up with a bland invitation to wreak as much havoc on Mother Russia as she should so please.

Now that seems a little backwards of what one would expect from the Soviet's premier murder machine.

Come to think of it… now she's at a better angle, now there's a little light coming in the window, that star on his shoulder isn't red, is it? It's white…

What? she says, baffled. Why? The Winter Soldier making a mistake? He chuckles humorlessly, straightening back up to his full height himself. "<It has been known to happen,>" he says. "<Though they wouldn't put that kind of thing in Pravda, now would they?>"

He shakes his head. "Besides," he says, in English now, "I am no longer the Winter Soldier." He grimaces. "As a full-time job, anyway."

For a few seconds Raisa Ivanovna Yakovleva can do nothing more than sit back and stare at her would-be assassin. She's come across many confusing things in her life. This has to be near the top of the list. Her mouth works for a moment, but all she can manage is a croak.

With great difficulty, and not half as much dignity as she might like, Isa manages to lever herself back up to her feet. She has to lean on the counter because she's shaking so hard, and after a moment's thought she kicks the knife away from both of them, into the cramped kitchenette's corner. If it's out of reach, she might be less tempted to use it now that he's obviously not here to snuff her life out in broad daylight.

It might not be much of a life, but she's slowly started getting reacquainted with the business of living. She wouldn't like to give it up lightly. Besides, she had made a promise, years ago, to a man whom she hasn't seen in eight years.

Isa sputters for a half-second before she can find her voice again. She doesn't bother to speak English; she doesn't trust herself to be understandable.

"<I guess everyone makes mistakes. Even the Winter Soldier.>" It's a wan attempt at humour, but she's eyeing him a bit oddly with that single eye of hers. "<No, of course not. Only the finest of news is worth printing in Pravda, isn't it? Certainly not an embarrassment like the Winter Soldier making a mistake.>" Her eye hardens again, something angry glimmering in its depths. "<Everyone makes them, but they like to ignore inconvenient truths like that.>"

Shaking her head, she slumps against the counter, hobbling over to the small kitchen table and yanking out a small kitchen chair. The gesture is clear: Sit. "<So. You know who I am.>" Her chin tilts up just a fraction; her gaze all fear and false pride. She throws herself into the other chair, folding her arms and glancing up to James. "<You say you are not here for me, but for all I know, you may be. I do not think you have any reason to try to calm me; if you wanted to come here to kill me, it would be done already.>"

"<I have been hiding since I arrived here, and I would really prefer not to be found.>" She cocks her head, red hair spilling across the scarred side of her face. "<What do I need to do to make sure that things stay that way…?>"

His eyes follow her as she moves, but no longer in the way of predator watching prey. There might even be some vague sympathy in his gaze for her shaking – sympathy and apology and guilt, bafflingly enough. He doesn't seem to take her booting the knife away from them both as an insult. If anything, it's a compliment.

His blue eyes narrow a bit as she sticks to Russian. He can understand why, if she is an expatriate. In respect to her comfort, he swaps back to Russian as well. "<Yes, well,>" he says, obviously hackling in masculine pride – since when did the Winter Soldier have some human traits? – "<I didn't make many mistakes to cover up, either. I could count them on one hand, even over sixty years.>"

She pulls out a chair for him to sit. He does not respond immediately, before – perhaps thinking it's best to try to put her a little more at ease – he crosses to it and takes a seat, leaning back and resting his metal arm on the table. After a moment of thought, he even reaches up and removes the mask.

The face of the Winter Soldier, revealed, is… almost disappointingly unremarkable. He looks no different from any other average handsome young early-thirties man one might pass in the street. At least… up until one remembers that the legend of the Winter Soldier spans over six decades, and what he himself said seems to imply that he has in fact been working for in excess of sixty years.

The legend did speculate on a number of reasons. Perhaps the Winter Soldier was merely a title, held by various men from generation to generation, men with enough zeal for the Motherland to slash off their own left arms for the cause. Perhaps it was something more exotic… perhaps the myths were not actually exaggerating when they claimed the Winter Soldier was eternal.

Whatever it is, he isn't explaining. He just glances up at her as she tries to slowly reason her way through the strange situation she's found herself in.

"<If I wanted to kill you, I would have done it from there.>" He nods out the window, at a rooftop far distant with a great view into her apartment. "<You would be dead before you ever had a chance of seeing me. I was here for Rudchenko, as I said, though the address must have changed, or been recorded incorrectly.>"

She's been hiding, and she'd prefer not to be found. What does she need to do to ensure that things stay that way?

He looks down at his own left hand. "<Nothing,>" he says. "<I am not someone you can bribe. Depending on your history and reasons for leaving Russia, I will help you stay hidden from them.>" He smiles, the expression like a baring of teeth. "<I like people who fuck em over.>"

Very slowly, the pilot arches a brow at the sudden display of prideful rejoinder. She seems surprised to see the Winter Soldier exhibiting human qualities. If the stories are to be believed, she was more likely expecting more machine than man. During his active service, he had lived up to the name. There was no more implacable enemy on the tundra and the taiga than the cold itself.

Folding her arms, her eye hoods a little; a silent 'oh, really?' in response to his defensive statement. Maybe it's true that the stories underscored how brutally efficient he was in his work, but in fairness, she's only seeing the mistake.

There's a flicker of approval in that eye as he accepts the offered chair. There's also something approaching… relief? Her eye lingers on the metal arm, but she offers no comment on it. It's like looking at a master swordsman's blade, or the like; a venerable tool that has contributed to the legend.

She's silent while she processes, because the face doesn't match the legend. He's too young to be the Winter Soldier, unless there are a succession of them. That would make sense; a program designed to train a number of super-operatives, whose very anonyminity made them so dangerous. Yet somehow that doesn't seem to ring true, either. Raisa Ivanovna Yakovleva frowns as she tries to unwind the dichotomy.

"<I suppose long-range sniping would mak more sense, from an analytical standpoint.>" There's no heart in her analysis, though. If anything, she sounds disgusted. "<Less risk, and less resources wasted. No chance of injury, not so far away. Not unless your target had some fantastic contingency plans, and I sincerely doubt any of them have thought so far ahead.>" She rests her own arm across the table. It's her right arm, and the skin is mottled from fingertips past shoulder in shades of pale, alternating with the dead white of heavy scarring.

Fingers tap the tabletop restlessly, and her single eye flicks around the room, flicks constantly to regard the Winter Soldier warily. It may be that he said he isn't going to kill her, but it would be naive of her to trust.

At his answer to her question, though, she turns and looks at him; really looks at him, studying him carefully. There's something behind her eyes, something almost approaching… hope? If what he says is a lie, and it's a trap, it doesn't matter. She's already been living on borrowed time, as far as she's concerned. She has nothing to lose by taking him at face value.

"<May I tell a story, Comrade?>"

She's surprised he is human. It doesn't shock him. Over the years, the USSR made a point to play up the Winter Soldier as more machine than man, more ideal than flesh and blood, more avenging saint of death than just another fallible wetwork specialist.

Perhaps purposefully, to continue that tearing down of his own dread image, he exaggerates his pride, his pique, his defensiveness. All the little flaws and foibles than make him as much a human as anyone else, albeit admittedly an enhanced one who has led an extraordinary life. The cost of it, is, of course, a certain freedom she now apparently feels to give him a bit of silent sass.

He lifts his brows at her 'oh really' look. It is a wordless expression that makes plain that she is welcome to focus on the mistake if she likes, but she should be prepared to reap the cost of such foolish underestimation.

His own gaze tracks away for a brief inspection of its own: on the burned and scarred skin of her right arm, as it is placed on the table in display. He says nothing, and after a moment he looks away again, but the injuries are catalogued in the back of his mind for further thought later on.

His face is far too young for the legend of the Winter Soldier, but there is something about his eyes that doesn't seem to support the idea of multiple operatives, either. There is a continuity, an age, a depth of experience to the way he looks around and takes in information – a weary shine to his blue eyes that can only come from age – that stands in stark contrast to the youth of his features. He has old eyes for such a young-looking man. Eyes that have seen three-quarters of a century worth of death.

Much of it through the scope of a sniper rifle, as Isa points out. The vague disgust in her voice at the idea of sniping is transparent, but rather than being offended, the Soldier simply smiles. "<Whatever gets the job done with maximum efficiency,>" he says. "<They had attitudes like yours, back in the day. The shape of war and what is acceptable has changed over the years.>"

He subsequently offers her something, though. Something that puts a vague glimmer of hope in her tired eyes. May she tell him a story?

"«If you promise not to call me Comrade again,>" he says with a grimace.

Very slowly, Isa arches her lone brow at James' request not to call him by that familiar salutation any more. If his animosity towards his homeland is genuine, and something in his mannerisms suggests to her that it is, then of course he wouldn't want to be called that. Maybe some part of her still fears a trap and wants to show proper respect. Maybe some part of her doesn't care, and it's only reflexive.

She gives an equally slow nod when he grants her permission. The cost is minimal. Suppressing her instincts to call him by that respectful title are easy enough for her to suppress, and she isn't exactly going to forget this meeting any time soon. It shaved about twenty years off her life. Things like that are particularly hard to forget.

"<I'm sure you've done your research, if you know my name. There is only one other person in America who knows it, probably two, and I work for both of them.>" Isa drops her eye to the grain of the formica tabletop, spreading the fire-ravaged fingers of her right hand over it. Her fingers tremble slightly, but whether that's from nerves or from moving so much requiring conscious effort, it's hard to say. "<So if you know my name, than you must know my story. Why I'm convinced someone like you is going to show up in my apartment sooner rather than later, and why they won't hesitate like you did.>"

She pushes herself up from her chair, turning to rummage in the drawer of a second-hand sideboard. A few dusty pieces of paper are produced, offered to James by scooting them towards his side of the table with a scarred fingertip.

All of them are singing the praises of the latest advances in the military hardware used by the Air Force, mainly to do with experimental jets. One or two of those experimental models have since become high-performance production models.

Each grainy photograph included with the article shows a smiling and much younger Raisa Ivanovna Yakovleva wearing a flight suit and chatting with reporters outside the cockpit of sleek and predatory-looking aircraft. The machinery differs, but the woman never does. In the last and most recent photograph, she's wearing a slim, gold wedding band, laughing, as though at something one of the cameramen might have said.

It's almost a different woman. The Raisa of a decade ago was secure in her place in the world, proud of her work and her ability to fly so well. She believed in the State, she seemed to have her life laid out before her, and she was happy with that.

Something happened to transform that bright soul into the flame-scarred and embittered soul that now slumps in her chair.

Isa gestures toward the clippings, as though to say silently, Go ahead, I'll wait while you read them.

Most are the same. Some miraculous breakthrough in hardware needed to be tested, and so Raisa was called in. After an impressive test flight to wow the reporters, she would discuss the changes and filter the military jargon into something that could be readily understood by the masses; something that would underscore the glory of the Motherland and its technological advances.

"<Once upon a time, I used to be the person in those photographs. I worked as a test pilot for the Russian Air Force. That wasn't what I originally did. I was supposed to be an ordinary combat pilot in a Mikoyan, but because of my performance I was tapped for test piloting.>" She gestures towards the photos. "<The earliest one of those is about fifteen years old. The latest one—>" Reaching out, Isa taps at the one that shows her with a wedding ring, "<—is five years ago.>"

She laces her fingers, leaning her chin against them. Her single eye hoods as she watches James, studying his face, as though to gauge his reactions. "<I flew for those long years without complaint. I did what I was ordered to do. I believed in the State. And then five years ago my parents were killed in an automobile accident.>"

That single blue eye skitters away from James, something hardening in it. "<Less than a week later, my husband was killed in an aircraft accident. We'd only been married two weeks. He was blamed for incompetence, but I know what killed him. Sloppy maintenance. Mediocrity. State-sponsored mediocrity. His ejection seat failed, I was told, and he went down with his aircraft.>" Her eye turns back to him, bland. "<I never saw the body or the wreckage. Sometimes I wonder if it was true…>"

"<But I digress.>" Tilting her head, Isa studies James again, folding her arms and leaning back in her chair. Once upon a time, she might have been a beautiful woman, before the accident and the bitterness. "<A few months after that, my own aircraft failed. Guess what it was? That's right,>" she adds, snapping her fingers. "<The ejection seat. After a failure in the engine. Specifically, my port engine array exploded. Then, because that wasn't bad enough, one of my consoles also failed. Specifically, it decided that was the perfect time to combust.>"

One hand reaches up to flick her hair away from her face, baring the scarred skin of her face, her throat, and her shoulder. "<Burns over sixty percent of my body, mostly on the right side. Every degree of burn known to man. The physicians said I wouldn't last the night. I lost most of my hair. My right eye was gone. There's not even an eye,>" she adds, shrugging and pointing at the patch. "<I just wear this because people stare even more if I don't, and it scares small children.>"

"<I taught myself to fly again after that. It took years. I can't tell you how difficult it was, trying to do something in three dimensions without depth perception. There are still things I can't do, like staircases. But I did it. I learned how to fly a jet again, after gratuitously pulling a lot of strings and clocking in a lot of simulations. It wasn't enough. They said I would never fly again."> Isa curls her lip in disdain. "<I gave them everything, and that was what I was given in return.>"

She looks away again. "<I'm sorry to say that I behaved shamefully after that. I crawled into a bottle of vodka, and I didn't come back out for a few years. I didn't swear it off, after that, but I did decide maybe I'd better not ruin what was left of my life that way. It wasn't what Misha would have wanted, no matter how much I wanted to join him.>"

"<I weighed my options. I decided that SHIELD was the only place left that I could go, safely. I also decided that they had no reason to believe or take a one-eyed cripple like me at face value. If I walked in and applied to pilot quinjets, I had no doubt that they would thank me for my time, pat me on the head, and send me back home to Moscow.>" Isa exhales, reaching around and finally finding a crumpled carton of cigarettes and a lighter. One is shaken out – after a lot of fumbling from her shaky hands – and lit; she takes a few minutes to savour the hit of nicotene, exhaling slowly.

Shrugging, almost in apology for the cigarette, she continues. "<So I did what I had to do in order to secure a future here. I stole everything I could get my hands on. Documents, schematics, blueprints, orders. You name it. I ripped it out of the system and I took it with me, and I turned around and offered it to the highest echelon of SHIELD's authority, on the promise that they allowed me to fly for them.>"

"<There is only one thing left to me that I cherish above all else, and that is flying. I could not have that taken away from me. It would have been the last thing. Without that, I am nothing, and no one.>"

She assumes that he's done research, if he knows her name, so it is highly likely he knows her story as well. He shakes his head. "<Only rudimentary research,>" he admits. "<You can't do a full check in a couple text messages.>"

Though that implies that he has easy text access to someone who CAN retrieve such sensitive, deeply-buried information – within minutes. A frightening thing indeed, though again – not terribly out of line with the overall myth of the Winter Soldier.

Over the course of several minutes, Isa proceeds to explain why exactly it was she was so convinced someone like him would show up for her someday. He listens in silence, paging periodically through the papers she produces, looking pensively at the articles and photographs showcasing a younger Raisa Yakovleva: unscarred, beautiful, and married. A faithful citizen of the State, a star test pilot, a young woman in love.

A person who was, over the course of years and oddly-convenient tragedies, twisted and turned into the bitter, scarred woman across the table from him now. He glances up when she shows him the extent of the damage, and even a man like him – inured to injury and death by seventy-five years of war – has to flick a lash in response to the wounds: still horrific, even haphazardly healed over.

At the close of the story, he looks back down at the papers. For a protracted period of time, he is silent as he regards the picture of the laughing Raisa with her wedding band. There is something in his eyes almost like tired envy. At least she had, and lost. Whereas he…

"<The Russians,>" he finally says, "<were never good at taking responsibility for their own mistakes or failures. It was easier to cover things up and blame those who could be easily scapegoated. Either you wound up at the center of some targeted campaign to remove you and your family for whatever reason, or you were the unfortunate victim of a string of bad luck arising from state mediocrity, and were forced to take the blame so no one would ever have to admit the USSR was failing and could never sustain itself.>"

He puts the picture down, very gently. "<Whatever it was, you were fucked over. If Russia will not take what you have to give…>" A humorless smile crosses his face. "<Then let America have it. My home country will happily accept.>" Wait, what?

The pilot almost reverently sweeps up the collection of newspaper clippings into her hand. They're carefully straightened and smoothed, tucked back into their drawer; when she does, there's a hint of something metallic, too small to be a gun.

It's the corner of the same band she had worn in that most recent photograph. She doesn't wear it now, but it's a small wonder why. It wouldn't fit any longer after the skin scarred over, and until it did, having something touch her skin was agony.

Most likely, though, it broke her heart every time she saw it.

A tilt of her head sends red hair spilling back over the right side of her face. She can't see out that side, and it's one more veil between her and the world. People stare, but she's learned tricks over the years to reduce that to a minimum. Her hair came to be a good distraction, and how she carried herself; an unconscious habit of turning her good side towards people.

"<To this day, I don't know.>" Isa shrugs, crumpling back into her chair. Her movements are slow, weary; the mannerisms of the defeated. "<I always thought the coincidences were just too much. First my parents, then my husband? And no body was ever found? I used to wonder if he was really dead. It's been so long, now… I'm sure he would have contacted me if he could, so maybe they really were telling the truth.>" She frowns, looking down to the table and drumming scarred fingers restlessly. "<Or maybe he can't, if he really is alive.>" Her eye closes for a few seconds. "<I don't know what to think. I haven't for a long time.>"

That blue eye lifts again, and when Isa looks back to James, there's obvious confusion written across her face. Her single brow lifts so far it threatens to vanish beneath the hair that hangs over even the left side of her face; she opens her mouth as though to say something. If she still had both eyes, she might blink owlishly. As it is she settles for staring at the Winter Soldier as though he'd just sprouted antennae from his forehead.

"<I—what?>" Home country? How could the Winter Soldier not even be of Russian descent? How could he not be a proud son of the Motherland? Isa can't do anything but stare for several seconds while she tries, somewhat futilely, to process that. "<You're not even Russian?>" The words are a horse rasp. There's no denying his skill. He is the Winter Soldier. But… "<How can that be?>"

Blue eyes sharper than the human norm catch that glint of metal in the drawer. Bucky registers what it is, and so in the next moment he pretends not to have seen it at all.

"<Coincidences are rarely coincidences, in a country like Russia,>" he says. "<I have always found it and its people to be very intentional about what they do.>" He sighs a long breath, before fishing his own pack of cigarettes out and lighting one up: encouraged, perhaps, by the fact Isa's already gone ahead. "<In the end the particulars don't really matter, do they? Things went wrong. They made you pay for their errors, instead of owning up to them.>"

It's odd, though, how he speaks of the country and its people so distantly, as if he were not one of them – as if he were speaking of a country to which he has no real connection. It's odd enough to be noticeable even before he explicitly gives a hint to that effect, a hint that has Isa looking at him in confusion and growing surprise.

What? How can the Winter Soldier, the crown jewel of the USSR's wetwork bullpen, not even be Russian? How can such an icon of Soviet power not be Russian at all to begin with?

He chuckles, a small plume of smoke escaping along with the sound. "<Here is an example of how deliberate they are about hiding their true antics under a layer of lies. God knows what you were told about the Winter Soldier, but you were always led to believe he was Soviet through and through, weren't you?>"

He shakes his head, morbidly amused. "I'm American," he says, in such slangy, casual, fluid English that it's hard not to believe. "Born and raised right here in New York. I was an American soldier. US Army, 107th Infantry. I was taken and repurposed. I was brainwashed to serve. I had… qualities they wanted." He laughs again, taking the cigarette from his mouth, exhaling smoke. "That was the Soviets for you. Pragmatic to the bone. Took what they wanted and gave it a paint job so they could call it their own."

He tilts his head at her. "You see why I'm not really surprised at how you got fucked over, too."

"<Very intentional.>" Isa is no stranger to the inner workings of her country's government, and the way that certain individuals suffer strings of terrible misfortune when things don't go the way the upper echelons are expecting it to. She sighs, red hair fluttering a little. "<Yes, you're right about that much. Mistakes happened, and I was made to pay for them, regardless of whose mistakes they were. They weren't mine. My mother and father paid, whatever their part in it. My husband paid.>"

Her right hand clenches into a fist, shaking. "<I suppose I was being naive, wanting to believe in them, but at the time I had very little left to hold onto and I knew it. I was cluching at straws for the sake of my sanity, in those long days and nights in the hospital bed. Do you know how long it takes to heal from burns this severe, Winter Soldier? Electrical fires are capable of burning very hot.>" She gestures to indicate the scarring across the right side of her cheek, single eye hooding. "<I didn't wake up for months. Years, maybe. I'm still not sure.>"

She leans back, exhaling smoke and letting the cigarette dangle. The one she'd been smoking when he arrived… well, it probably fell. Hopefully, into the sink. She doesn't smell anything burning yet, thank God, although a five-alarm fire might do the brownstone a favour. Or the borough around it.

"<I was,>" she confirms, when he asks that she was made to believe the Winter Soldier was a Soviet through and through. Nodding, she pulls over a cheap glass ashtray, tapping a shower of ash into it. "<I—>"

There's that English again, and it takes her brain several seconds to change gears (the gearbox is a little stripped) and parse what he's saying. She frowns, deeply enough to crease the scar tissue on her face.

"Qualities. Pragmatic. Da, is how it go. They take what they want, to Hell with anyone else." Her English is passable but broken, more like a raven's croak than an ordinary person's speaking voice. If anything, she sounds even more haggard when she speaks English. "Was not brainwashed, but maybe in some way, I was. Always believe the best in the State. Always serve. Ask nothing in return." She flicks ash from her cigarette and brings it back up for a draw with more violence than necessary. "I give them everything, they toss me aside like yesterday's trash. Da… probably they kill my Misha, too," she sighs around smoke. "I fly so well, I earn such publicity, probably someone get jealous, somewhere, I think. Must be.

She shrugs one shoulder, tamping the mostly-smoked cigarette in the tray more than strictly needed and scowling. "Is why I am happy to do what damage I can." She gestures at the drawer she'd taken the newspaper clippings from. "Was being honest, when I say I wouldn't have mind if you shot me. Well. Maybe it inconvenience landlady a little," she adds, shrugging. "But wouldn't have mind. Have nothing left, any more. Haven't for too many year."

"So I come to SHIELD. I give them information, in exchange for one thing left I want: To fly. Is one place left where I don't feel dead already. Put me in cockpit, I feel at home. If I can't have my family, my job, my Misha — if I can't have chance to start own family — then give me sky. Is last place I can feel free." The lines below her eyes deepen, a little. "Was last thing I had left. And they take that from me, too. So. Da. Would not mind fucking them over a little, myself."


She cocks her lone eye at him, squinting a little.

"Am not so old as to call me zhenshina. Call me that again, maybe might feel like doing something with steak knife." It's supposed to be a joke, but it's a flat one. She sighs. "<Sorry. My English is usually better. I can speak it fluently, when I want to, but…>" She gestures, somewhat nebulously. Her hand is still shaking, violently, enough that the smoke trailing from the tip of her cigarette visibly judders a little bit. She's still somewhat rattled; it's a wonder she can even hold onto the cigarette itself.

Bucky holds his grave silence as Isa says that whatever mistakes were made – whoever made them – she and her family were the ones who were made to pay for them. He wishes he could reassure that was likely not the case, but… This is something he has seen many times, over the years.

Does he know how long it takes to heal from burns this severe? "<Yes,>" he says, his eyes haunted in a way that suggests his knowledge does not come from being the recipient of the wounds, so much as the cause. "<I have some idea.>"

He sighs out a breath as she addresses him as Winter Soldier, however. That won't do. "<Just call me James,>" he says, opting for the less recognizable and more nondescript, common version of his name. "<That is my name.>"

This leads naturally into the revelation that the vaunted Winter Soldier is… not even Russian. He smiles tiredly at her incredulity, though he has little to say beyond the briefest outline of who he was before he was the Winter Soldier. He's sure, if she's working for SHIELD, she'll find out his story sooner or later, but for the time being there's really no need for him to proffer more information than he has to.

Old habits for secrecy die hard.

His head cants a little as she lapses into English with him, a slow blink transpiring as he switches mental gears to understand her heavily accented words. He does not say anything about it, not really wanting to implicate her pride, but he quietly eases back into Russian for her comfort. He speaks it well enough, after all.

She honestly wouldn't have minded if he shot her. "<I would have minded,>" he sighs, "<if I had shot you.>"

He gestures with his cigarette. "<You're here, aren't you? You have something left.>"

He winces a little as she reminds him of his earlier form of address for her, however. "<…Sorry,>" he says, though his mouth quirks in a crooked, sly sort of smile. The smile that stole a lot of hearts decades ago, back in the 1930s, when life was a lot simpler. "<I was in a rather bad mood.>"

She makes excuse and apology of her own for her English, but she's still rattled. Bucky glances at the way her hands shake, and guilt soaks into the blue of his eyes. "Prinoshu iskrenniye izvineniya, devushka," he says, and he does sound sincere. He pushes away from the table and back to a stand, with a quiet whir of the mechanisms in his left arm. "<I'll leave you in peace.>"

Again, that crooked smile. "<Don't get too alarmed if you see me around SHIELD. I have some business with them once in a while. It's not too far off from the way they took you in.>"

"James?" The pilot arches her lone brow, something shifting on the scarred side to suggest the other might have dropped a little. Without an eye visible, it's hard to say for sure. "Then will call you that."

She seems to weigh something for a long moment. If what everything he's told her is true, then he isn't her enemy. Certainly he may not be her ally, but he has not chosen the side that she's dedicated her life to fleeing. It's hard work, living like a refugee. The constant looking over her shoulder is exhausting.

"Call me Raisa."

Maybe she's just tired of running.

There's a short second or two of silence.

"In private."

She had told Coulson that Raisa had died, many years ago, and that the name was no longer hers – but at the same time, there's an ache at the sound of that name, like a heartstring being plucked, and an odd, muted joy to hear it again. For a long time now she's put that name aside. True, it represents the pain of everything she had left behind or lost… but at the same time, it also represents all the thing she once loved in her life; fond memories, good memories.

Maybe she was lying to him when she'd told him that. Maybe she was lying to herself. Isa takes a drag from her cigarette, and the motion seems somehow weary.

"Then am pleased to meet you… James." She eye him almost speculatively before switching back to Russian. "<No. I wouldn't have minded. Really. I've lost everything, became a cripple in a sense of the word, and now I live my life looking over my shoulder every hour of every day. It is exhausting. More than I can even put to words. Your eyes tell me that you know that exhaustion, too.>" She spreads her hands in plaintive gesture. "<What kind of life is that…? I used to ask myself that question all the time.>"

"<But I made a promise over Misha's gravestone, once I was well enough to visit it. No matter how much in despair, no matter how terrible things became, I would not take my own life. For him, I would continue; it was what he would have wanted me to do.>" Isa smiles, bitterly. "<But if events are beyond my control, well; then events are simply beyond my control, no?>"

After all, there's no helping it if the premiere Russian super-assassin breaks into her apartment and shoots her in the back of the head for her actions. Maybe that's why she didn't particularly care about the repercussions; an elabourate form of situational suicide – even then, she had to know what would happen to her.

Maybe she didn't know the specifics of what would happen, but there was no denying even then that there would be consequences, and that they would be severe.

The pilot rolls one shoulder in a shrug, scarred skin rising and falling. "<I am here. That much is true. But do not mistake that for having anything.>" The cigarette shakes in her grasp, smoke trailing erratically. Despite how obvious it is she seems to be stoically ignoring it. Isa snorts smoke. "<I am too tired to start my life over again, so maybe I will cling to what tatters I have left…>"

"<I suppose I must have lied to him. I will have to apologise for that,>" she murmurs, to a spot just to the side of the Winter Soldier, eye hooded; she snaps back to reality once he addresses her in Russian, issuing a formal apology.

The pilot stares for several seconds, but there's no telling what she means by it, her face an opaque mask. Her single eye lingers on the super-soldier, mouth set into its usual almost-scowl. Yet her expression is neutral. There is no animosity in her eye despite the lines of her mouth; the scarring makes her seem more harsh than she really is, or once was.

She mashes the remnants of the cigarette into the ashtray, perhaps deciding she's shaking too hard to be handling something that might set her apartment on fire.

Levering herself back to her feet, she makes her way to the front door, unlocking several deadbolts and holding it open for him.

"<I expect you did not come in the front door, but you may leave by it.>" Isa manages a half-smile. "<I will look for you, then. Look for me. I will be on the tarmac, most times. Or in the sky, where I belong. It seems I am Agent Coulson's personal chauffeur, but I expect you already know this.>"

One hand is lifted and flicked at him in mock salute. "<Goodbye, James. I think I am grateful you did not shoot me, after all.>"

She'll see him out, and lock the deadbolts behind him, watching to ensure that he does in fact leave.

Then, very calmly, she'll return to her bedroom, curl up in a ball, and wait for the convulsive shaking to stop.

It only stops, closer to midnight than dusk, because she's exhausted enough to sleep.

"<I would have minded,>" he persists, with tired patience. "<There is already more than enough blood on my hands without adding more that is innocent. If you want to die, you will have to find another instrument. I knew another Raisa – a little girl. I murdered her father in front of her eyes, with a knife.>" He closes his own. "<I am done with that.>"

But she doesn't want to. He nods slowly as she speaks of her graveside promise to her dead husband. "<I know the exhaustion,>" he says. "<But my life was stolen from me once already. I am not ready to let it go this time. I was not alive before, so I suppose I still have the energy to try to make a new life…>"

He has long overstayed his welcome, however. Both her nerves and his are too frayed for long interaction. She rises with him to see him out the front door, holding it for him. He knows where to find her, should he be looking for her: in the sky. Where she belongs.

But he pauses on the way out, his blue eyes glancing back to regard the woman. Something seems missing. Something to compensate for what he almost did here… did to another broken, scarred victim of the corrupt of the Russian state. Someone ground down and used, just as he was.

With a sigh, he puts his cigarette in his mouth to free his hands, and reaches for a bit of paper and pen to write down a number. The number of one of his burners.

"<That's if you get the feeling they really have sent someone for you,>" he explains, placing the paper on a stand by the door.

His gaze on hers is cool and distant, coldly blue as the faraway peaks of mountains, and just as inhospitable to life. "<Call me,>" he says. "<And I will take care of them.>"

It is very easy to discern what he means by 'take care.'

There is no hesitation in his eyes, no question, no doubt. He has no fear of whatever assassin Russia might send. He was their best.

It is the last thing he says before, without a backward glance, he walks away, leaving her to process having gained the protection of the Winter Soldier.

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