Vek Zhivi, Vek Uchis

April 23, 2017:

The Black Widow, hearing that the Winter Soldier has not only resurfaced but gone straight, decides to investigate her old instructor in her own special way.

Brooklyn, New York

Characters

NPCs: None.

Mentions: Jane Foster

Plot:

Mood Music: [*\# None.]


Fade In…

New moon tonight, and the skies hang dark and heavy after a recent rain. It's no cleaning thing in New York City, the rain: it just shakes out the proverbial carpet and flips up all the filth and taint and city ozone to scatter in the air.

Out on the suburban side of Brooklyn, close enough to face the East River enough to feel the batter of winds off the water, the late night has culled the streets down to a murmur. The odd, red-eyed car sighs past with the splash of tires catching pot hole puddles, but all around Jane Foster's brownstone, the world stays quiet. Gone to bed. Dormant.

Save for a distant figure, seven hundred yards north and straight up, dressed simply and darkly to be reduced to a shadow: a little crow making perch on a commercial building top.

It whistles Free Bird as it begins assembly of a M110.

The bipod stays off, unnecessary, as an upraised roof edge of concrete, one foot up, provides ample brace for the barrel.

Lowering itself around the rifle, the figure takes count of the street and buildings around, and by eye alone — burning through holes in its mask — it stares down a distant, far-seen target. Jane Foster's fire escape window.

It knows better, and so the figure at snipe point does this last after many, many minutes of quiet sentry. It flips up the cap from the scope lens.

The cap flips up from the scope lens. A moment later, there is the slight shiver of air from above, as of something dropping soundlessly from a higher vantage point.

The air sighs as it parts for the blade of a knife, borne by one silent and slaughter-eyed James Barnes. He's not dressed for work, not like this figure is, but there wasn't a lot of time for him to go changing once he noticed the telltale flickers of movement and light atop that roof… and he's good enough he can operate in civvies if he has to.

The blade drives downwards, precision-aimed for the sniper's back. It may not kill, but at the least it will ensure this mystery person will never use a rifle again. Will never walk again, in fact.

The force behind it suggests that he does not really care if it does kill, though. Someone taking aim on Jane Foster is not worth the courtesy of pulled punches.

He descends without a sound.

One moment, that figure is bent over the M110, mantled along the long line of the rifle —

— the next it moves, letting the weapon go and rolling half-a-second before that blade would sever its spine in two. It stops up onto its side, low to the ground.

It does not flinch. It does not pause. Its masked, black-dressed body does not convey a moment's surprise. Not a reaction: expectation. It's a lure. A trap.

Moving with astounding speed that is not human, that momentum does not stop. The first reaction would be a disabling strike at his weapon, at the left arm holding it. It does not try that.

As he must land, the figure comes in close, lashing out with a shockingly powerful jab for the common peroneal nerve in his closest leg. Should the strike hit, make the limb go numb, it follows up with sweep to try to knock him off his feet.

Trap.

The split-second reaction of the assassin sends that possibility ripping through his mind. The anticipation in her stance as she rolls away and spins to face him only tunnels that suspicion deeper into his mind. She's moving too fast to be just human, either. A Widow? Some other deadly killer from his past dredged up to haunt him?

There's no time to think about that. Only time to neutralize the threat. Then he can figure out the what, the how, and the why.

She comes in hot — but not for his left arm, the weapon-wielding one. That surprises him, that pointed avoidance of his strongest side against the usual logic that demands disarming an opponent before engaging in melee. He turns sharply as she jabs for his leg instead, sweeping it back out of the way. It happens to be his right leg, which gives him the perfect kind of momentum to swing his left arm around in an attempt to land a stunning blow against the side of her head. He doesn't even use the knife clutched in it — just straight rams those steel knuckles for her temple.

Metal whines loudly in the humid, still night.

He is quick, but so is the figure — so is she.

Coming in close, there is a leanness to her form, its lines otherwise disguised in the thickness of tac gear, to presume her gender. It may be a question beyond that to wonder if she is even human, because people do not holster the sort of quickness and deftness she does; human agility and human reflex has their own terminus point.

Those close, with nowhere to go, and a metal arm careening with preternatural speed at her head: for many people this would be a quick conclusion. Steel knuckles to the temple. The brain inside mulched on contact.

But not for her. She weaves a step into him, escaping the punch and now inside the curve of his left arm, grasping onto it —

— aware it is metal, aware it is /strong/ enough to support the split-second move she makes to crack both feet into the center of his mass.

It's not so much a disabiling strike as it is something to separate them, send him and her skidding at opposite ends of the roof. She wastes no time to find her feet and re-engage, and she's adamant to stay on his right side.

She is fast. If it is even a she. The gear is chosen deliberately to veil the gender. At this point, the speed and reflexes are more a tell for him than the shape of the body opposing him. Few boast this kind of enhancement, and he's aware of most who do.

Most of the possibilities make him feel sick to contemplate. He doesn't want anyone from any of those potential lists pointing a gun at Jane—

The solution is obvious. Delete the threat as quickly as possible, and then figure it all out. He moves, caging her aggressively in, trying to cut off her avenues of escape even as he fires his left arm straight for her head. It is another intended killing blow; James is not interested in half-measures or holding back.

She moves into him instead of away, latching onto his left arm and using it in a way that suggests she knows exactly what it's made of and how strong it is to support her weight. Shocked, he doesn't react quickly enough to stop the slam of her feet into his center mass, and the move handily separates them to opposite ends of the roof.

The increased range, however, just gives him a chance to escalate now that quiet is no longer necessary.

When he kips back up, it's with a gun drawn. Pistol, but pistol's good enough for this kind of close quarters. He takes aim immediately with deadly intent.

He moves immediately. She mirrors him with identical impetus.

With a speed beyond human limits, she crosses the roof on fierce, lethal steps, intent to close that deadly range. Within that split-second time he takes to draw his pistol, that black figure is close —

— but not close enough to stop a first shot.

Through the holes in her mask, her eyes are open, bright, fierce. She studies the angle of his arm, the strength of his wrist, the trajectory of his shot. His reflexes find an equal in hers. And yet, there is something more, something here that most of his adversaries lack.

She knows how he shoots.

The wind-up of his arm has her already dodging right, and with a terrifying agility she cuts past that bullet. It grazes her arm, ripping leather and cutting fabric, and the smell of blood scalds the air. That does not stop her. Before the second shot, her gloved hands seize in to try to lock his wrist as the other applies a quick, mechanical jab at the radial nerve to make him drop the firearm. The respect she gives his left arm does not extend to the right, as she tries to align herself to its outside.

She pulls brutally on the wrist with the full, falling weight of her body, as, with a twist of her body that should not be human, she tries to lock her ankles at his throat.

She's going to try to throw him. Throw him before he can reach her with either knife or left arm. Both are immediately fatal.

She dodges a shot fired from so close a distance it might as well be point-blank. His eyes widen in shock — then narrow in suspicion. She dodged almost like she knew how he would fire, not just from an examination of what he was doing but from… familiarity with the quirks of how he aims and shoots. That, coupled with the fact she seems to know about his left arm, enough to pointedly avoid it and boldly grapple his right instead…

He looks into the eyes staring out through that mask. Blue. Blue as Lake Baikal in midwinter. Now why would he think of that at a time like this?

The thought slides back out of his mind as she wraps her much-slighter frame around his right arm like a snake. The gun drops from his grip, jarred free both by her weight and by her pinpoint jab. She climbs him, locking her ankles about his neck, and—

He knows the move she's going to make before she makes it. Ironically, in this case, that fact is what makes him fall prey to it, because shock and suspicion lock his mind up for one critical half-second.

He knows the move… because he taught it. Over and over again, no holds barred, breaking bones and shattering ribs in punishment for failed executions, until his pupil got it just right.

He hits on his left shoulder with a dull clang, transforms it into a roll, skids back to a stop on all fours. That familiarity with his arm, with how he shoots, now this —

"Natalia?!" he sputters.

Throw executed, and safely away from the man — from the reach of his metal arm — the woman catches herself with her free arm, deftly twists in a way that is unnatural, and rolls up on one knee.

In that single motion, she has confiscated his dropped firearm, holding it forward in one gloved hand. Trigger discipline, however, keeps her finger adjacent to the pistol.

A single, spoken name breaks the silence between them.

The sniper stares at him facelessly. Then, with a breath out that sounds almost like a slow, bends her arm, pointing the weapon harmlessly off him, straight into the air. She checks the safety, then with her free arm, reaches up.

Her mask tugs off with a fall of long, red hair. It shakes free, momentarily disguising her face.

She lifts her head, and it's Natalia Romanova, her same eyes, her same features, looking like she hasn't aged more than a handful of years over the last sixty. Her eyes hook up at the corners as a grin unsheathes along her mouth. "Took you long enough, coach."

James rises from his low crouch slowly, still on high alert, still gripping that knife — but no longer on the killing offense. No longer even attacking. He knows now who's facing him, and she can't actually be here to kill either him or Jane if the simple sound of her name has stopped her attack dead in its tracks.

No, something else is going on here. Something he'd very much like her to CLARIFY RIGHT NOW.

The sight of her face, still young and beautiful as ever, doesn't shock him — he is more than aware what was done to her, once she was christened a Widow and went out from his tutelage — but to see her nonetheless feels like a blow to the chest, a shock of memory that mingles pleasant and unpleasant recollections so confusingly that at first, uncharacteristically… he just stands and stares.

Took you long enough, coach.

THAT snaps him out of it. Temper flares in his eyes. "What are you doing here, Natalia Alianovna?" he grits out. Name and patronymic. She's in the doghouse. "More to the point — what are you doing here, doing THIS? Just to get my attention? I might've killed you. I may yet."

Those blue eyes take in the Winter Soldier: every feature, every play of emotion across his face, every moment he looks as he spits her full name out at her.

Her grin does not falter for a moment. Amusement plays at all corners of her face, the look of her visibly and transparently taking obscene entertainment out of this.

He could have killed her, he chides. He still may do it.

Instead of answering far more important questions, Natalia's attention shifts to the newly-acquired gun in her hand as if already bored. She looks it over with equal parts amusement and appraisal, making a judgment call. She clucks her tongue. "Old habits really do die hard," she says. "You're really showing your age with this piece."

The erstwhile Winter Soldier does not return her grin. Nor her amusement. Nor her words, in fact. Not at first, anyway.

He glares at her a moment more. Then, seeing as she does not seem interested in answering his questions, he snorts and turns on his heel. He walks over to her forgotten rifle and picks it up, hefting it easily, having himself a look at it — "Oh, very funny," he rolls his eyes — and then shouldering it.

Then he starts walking away, which he knows from experience is probably the most annoying thing you can do to Natasha when she is trying to nettle you.

He's really showing his age with this piece. "Age before beauty," he quips, accordingly making to stroll right off.

It is also a test, of sorts. If she is here to kill or bring him in, there would be no better time to attempt than with his back turned.

"So you're just going to take my gun," deadpans Natalia after the Soldier's turned back. "Seriously. Just like that. It's not even mine! I'm still being docked for the last one!"

Quip after quip after quip ricochets off his turned back like all of him were made of that titanium.

The woman, looking a little put out, holds her mysterious mask up high until he's two steps from leaving the rooftop —

— and calls her bluff. She lets go a deep and absolutely suffering sigh that rakes across the warm night air. "Fine," she says. "You win."

No attempts of anything with his back turned to her. Should he look back, Romanova is exactly where he left her, weight shifted annoyedly to one hip, and his gun extended out, proffered grip-first like a veritable olive branch. "You're not exactly playing hard-to-get lately, so don't act surprised I wouldn't be able to find you. As for this?"

Natalia shrugs. "Heard you went straight. Wanted to see if it was true."

So you're just going to take my gun?

"Yep," says James.

Seriously. Just like that.

"Yep," says James again.

It's not even mine! I'm still being docked for the last one!

"Yep," says James a third time. "…Sounds like you," he adds.

And mercilessly, pitilessly, he just keeps going. He gets right to the edge of the rooftop… and she sighs out her defeat, for now. The blue eye that turns back to pin her, over his left shoulder, is canny and sharp. The eye of a teacher who still knows his student backwards and forwards.

He comes back presently, and trades her gun for his own. The 1911 (it really is old-school) goes back in its holster. He avoids her eyes as he does so, as she says how and why it is she's here. "No… I haven't been under the radar, I guess," he says. "Especially not with SHIELD."

Heard you went straight. "In a manner of speaking," he says. "I didn't really go straight, so much as I stopped being crooked. I went back to what I'm supposed to be."

He finally looks at her, with the sort of askance of someone finding it difficult to look memory too fully in the face. "Heard YOU went straight."

A truce brokered between traded guns.

Natalia takes her bulky M110 back with an easy smile that does not touch her pensive eyes, and retreats back to set the unwieldy rifle down. Over the decades, she hasn't lost a bit of that effortless grace. The ex-Bolshoi even makes bending over look like a goddamn dance.

She files the weapon aside and lingers away. Maybe it's a bit too heavy for her to hold like an infant while pretending small-talk. Maybe just to put it carelessly out of the way. Maybe it's a good excuse to let her linger out of arm's length of the Winter Soldier, because old habits do die hard. And the first rule of the Widow is to stay alive.

Survival is synonymous with remaining out of reach of that metal arm.

She helps herself down to a careless seat of the concrete lip of the roof, long legs angled outward, leaned forward with her arms braced across her thighs.

"Nick Fury is a very persuasive man," she says amiably. "Offered me corner cubicle and everything. Dental plan. The works."

Natalia has no trouble meeting the Soldier's eyes, not for a moment. "You weren't all crooked, Yasha." Her smile widens. "OK, maybe I was a bit curious to see if they'd made you forget about me."

He notices the way she retreats to put the rifle aside. There is a certain angle she takes, that steers her far clear of his left side, that gives him a good guess what she is doing.

It is an odd dynamic to have between two people who were erstwhile master-and-student, erstwhile lovers… though given the ways in which both those relationships ended, and given their shared profession, probably it's not odd at all.

James remains standing even as Natalia helps herself to an easy, long-legged seat, his head canted slightly as she blames her current situation lightly on the persuasiveness of Director Nick Fury. "So I've heard," he says, though so far he only knows of Nick Fury from an adversarial viewpoint. Really all that's necessary to get a bead on the kind of man he is, though. "Must be a hell of a dental plan. Last I knew, you were quite happy where you were."

Or seemed so, anyway.

His gaze shies a little when she meets his eyes. Her direct stare makes it easy to notice when the use of his old name provokes a grimace, though he doesn't correct her yet. "Cute," he says dryly of her quip. "Very cute. They did make me forget, the next time they woke me after they put me away. And it stayed forgotten until pretty recently."

He finally meets her eyes a little more directly. "Remember everything now. Or mostly everything. There's a lot TO remember. I assume you know it all already, of course."

"Last you knew was sixty years ago, old man," retorts Natalia, something playful haunting her eyes since that mention of 'happy'. "Lots has happened. No more Cold War. God, I miss the Cold War. Everything was so simple. Everyone killed with their hands rather than this button-pushing bullshit. Gave you a sense of accomplishment, you know?"

She rolls a careless shrug, everything about her unageing body the picture of tired irreverence, though her blue eyes never leave him. The Widow's doing a read, absorbing, processing, analyzing every give the Winter Soldier may have. "But times change. Circumstances change. Even Coke changed for a while. Seriously hope they made you forget about that."

Both of her hands grasp down on the concrete edging that's made her seat, and the woman tilts backward, boredly playing with what is a fatal drop. "But even you change. Doing the civilian thing? Even shacking up with one? And — wait, no, we have something to settle. Something important."

Natalia leans forward and plants her feet on the ground, her body squaring, her muscles tensing, her eyes like a missile lock-on. "'Bucky'? Are you serious? I was trained by someone named /Bucky/?"

The 'old man' remark rolls off his back. He's heard it so often by now it's just old hat, and he supposes it is objectively true. When you've just hit one hundred, you can't protest the nickname anymore no matter how you actually look. And besides — "Point taken, old woman." What's good for the gander is good for the goose.

He absorbs the rest of what she says in silence. The look of him right now is one big tell, and it's saying something loud and clear, all right: what she's giving him is one big non-answer, and he knows it, and she knows it. She says she misses the Cold War and the sense of accomplishment old-school killing brought. He knows that feeling. Doesn't he?

His expression briefly moves between amused understanding and disgust. "You could say that. Anyway… I was in freeze for the Coke thing. I'm told that's the only merciful thing cryostasis ever did for me."

His demeanor goes on lockdown when she talks about how he's changed. Pretending at civilian life. Shacking up with a civilian woman. And she's got a bone to pick with him about the fact she was trained by someone named —

"James, if you prefer," he says, without blinking a lash. "Never wondered where they got 'Yakov' from? That whole name was one big joke." He finally cracks half a smirk. "But… yeah, you were. Reassessing your whole life yet? Wanna return what you got to sender?"

He's sidestepping a significant part of this conversation.

The 'old woman' remark doesn't go over well. Natalia cringes demonstratingly, letting her head loll back to set free to the night air a low, pained groan. "All right, all right. I call truce on that front. That hurts."

Hitching one leg up on the concrete edging, leaning her own elbow to her thigh, and chin nestled into her hand with the sleepy lethargy of a napping cat, the Widow appraises the Soldier through her lashes. She studies him, but it's not so much him she's looking at; the look in Natalia's eyes is the way a person studies themselves before a mirror, seeing every feature and flaw reflected back. She's giving him non-answers, and they both know it.

"Considering it," she quips dryly about her life going back to sender — little do they all know — as her eyes lazily hood. She thinks a moment.

Then Natalia makes a decision. All that easy complacency writes itself off her face. She lets it all go, every bit of them she puts on like hues of make-up, until all that is left is her. Her face is a vacancy sign. Her eyes are hollow. There are no feelings for machines whose entire lives are 1s and 0s.

"Fury caught me fair and square. It was a few years back. Join the merry men or get a hole put in my head. And you know me. I always like to do things to hard way." Natalia's fingers play with the ends of her hair. "It's not half-bad. I've made so many friends."

She watches him for a moment. "How long did Hydra have you, Yasha?"

Amusement flickers in his eyes when his return salvo finds purchase, but — taking pity — he doesn't hassle her any further about her own advanced age.

Natalia makes herself real comfortable, where she sits. James's own posture is a distinct contrast to her ease: his arms are folded across his chest, his feet set with military shoulder-width-apart precision, his head bowed slightly in thought. It's both like and unlike his body language when she knew him as the Winter Soldier. The 'soldier' part carried over — she's always known him to have that starched military bearing — but some other things didn't. There's less of the cold, singleminded lethality, for one thing.

There are some other things, as well, that are entirely new. Things like the way he looks at her when she makes a choice, strips her many masks down, and says she's made so many friends, and it's not half bad. The look says that he knows what she's really saying.

The Winter Soldier would have reflected back her same emptiness. But James Barnes, he almost looks sad.

It passes, when she turns the question back on him. How long did Hydra have him? His features close down, but before they do, Natalia gets a glimpse of the kind of kiln-stoked rage that can burn for decades. "Since 1945, if you want to get technical," he says without emotion. She gave him a little. He'll give her a little. "It was always them standing in the background anyway. But officially speaking, from '91 to… a couple months ago."

He shrugs. "Regime collapses are hell on bank accounts. They got desperate. Even then, I don't think selling me off was a popular decision all around. I found a couple people who didn't agree with it." And killed them anyway, his flat gaze finishes the statement.

Natalia Romanova always has some quip for everything. There is no atrocity or horror or grief in the world too much for her smart mouth.

It is telling that as the Winter Soldier's face flickers with something — an emotion she's never seen on him before, and now directed at her. As the Winter Soldier speaks of how his country sold him for a handful of dollars, just like that — the Widow says nothing at all.

She is perfectly silent, her eyes on him, listening and looking like the faceless automaton that they made her.

And then, just like that, it's gone. Natalia's face softens with another one of her masks, this one bringing a crease to her blue eyes and an amused, fond crook to her mouth. Leaning her chin into her hand, she smiles briefly against her knuckles. "Always thought your accent was a little weird."

When it comes to Natalia Alianovna Romanova, silence speaks louder than a shout. It was always the least important of things she would run her mouth on, and the most important that would yield nothing but empty quiet and a steady stare.

James knows her, as well as anyone can profess to know the Black Widow. He taught her. He was the subject of one of the first willful choices she made in her life. Now, he reads something plainly in the silence that descends on her, when he speaks casually of how he was sold like a dog, like just another gun in the arsenal.

It brings him to silence as well, his head at a slight cant, his eyes studying her as if to try to parse her. "Things change, indeed," he says, slowly. The eager young ingenue of death he remembers has — somewhere in the intervening fifty years since he last saw her — become a woman.

And that is all he says. He does not think she would appreciate any further attention called to it. He just snorts as she impugns his accent. "My accent was fine, thanks," he says. "The Otdel never had any issue with it."

He sighs. "That's it, then? Coerced service? Doesn't seem like your style."

The Winter Soldier, or the man whom now wears his face, chooses his words.

Natalia tilts her head animal-like, pensive, eyes tracking the Soldier's easy conversation as though it were the swipe of a scalpel turned on her flesh. She was so young the last time she looked upon his face, she thinks. The entire world changed since then. He has changed. Things change, he says. Has she? Can she?

He questions the veracity of her coerced service.

The Black Widow goes still. Then she rolls her eyes to the sky, uncrosses her legs, and lets go the plaintive sigh of the deeply hurt. "I remember you loving my eclectic tastes," she complains.

Her gloved hands clap down on concrete finalizingly. "Anyway, I shouldn't keep you past your bedtime. You have one of those now, right?" She pauses. "You know what? Keep the rifle. Call it a housewarming gift."

Natalia's grin warms her entire face straight up to her blue eyes. "It was nice to meet you, Bucky. Call me Natasha."

She pushes off from the lip of the roof and plummets into darkness.

Timelessness is an odd thing. You endure, unchanged, as the world moves around you. Even when you look on a face as unchanged and young as your own, it can still disguise a mind which has completely reconfigured since the last time you saw it…

The Winter Soldier has the same face, but so much else about him is different. She was different, too, the last time she looked at him, if only by virtue of age and their respective positions. Then, she was young, the learner, the girl groomed at his hand for the hunt and the kill. In other ways they were both young and reckless, those many decades ago. Now?

He asks. It seems strange to him, that she is here.

She goes still. He takes in that pause, in one glance of perceptive blue eyes. It keeps his gaze pensive even throughout his rejoinder to her crack about his love of her eclectic tastes. "They shoulda wiped your memory," he grumbles, but without seriousness or heat.

She decisively concludes the conversation, a moment later. A few last quips, and she is gone.

Bucky is left standing alone on the rooftop, regarding the abandoned M110. He turns her parting words over and over in his mind, thinking on them.

Then, with a shake of his head and a laugh, he collects the rifle, checks it, and shoulders it to head for home.

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