July 11, 2017:

Natasha Romanova pays a visit to James Barnes on the matter of his trial.

Manhattan, New York


NPCs: None.


Mood Music: [*\# None.]

Fade In…

The Winter Soldier was released on bail on the condition he not stray outside a hundred-mile radius of the federal courthouse. Considering who he was, this was a generous allowance indeed. He was probably allowed to escape literal house arrest primarily because of his status as a valuable source of intel, and the potential need to travel around within New York to speak to interested parties. Primarily SHIELD.

He is being pumped for information before he is very possibly killed. James is very aware of it, but he complies, because it is what he feels he owes. In fact, in most cases, including with SHIELD, he was the one to offer.

He has just left a session at the Triskelion. His intel is already somewhat out of date, especially with regard to HYDRA, but there are other things he can say about various political situations around the globe— unique perspectives he can offer from the eyes of those who stand in opposition to SHIELD.

His thanks for his service is to be heckled, not twenty feet down the street from the Triskelion. Luckily, it doesn't escalate, mostly because James is still the Winter Soldier, and losing people in crowds as thick as those in Midtown East is child's play.

Sharper eyes might be able to follow him, however — he's not trying THAT hard — and will be able to track him to the relative solitude of a low rooftop somewhere around West 34th and 7th Avenue. Near Penn Station and Madison Square Garden, in fact.

One does not have to move too far within the Triskelion to worry one of the imaginary threads of the Black Widow's web.

Natasha is something a wraith among them; the other operatives see and know little of her, and avoid excessive fraternalization. The Widow does not dispute her own ghost story reputation. But even as she stays their shadow, a ghost haunting their ranks, that does not mean she neglects a careful watch.

Appearances made by the Winter Soldier are always a fanfare among the other agents. Like she could miss the parade if she tried. Honestly.

She leaves while he's mid-interview, but sticks around. Through the dense, rush hour current of workers and tourists treading their way to Penn, Natasha settles comfortably, sunglasses down and milkshake in hand, enjoying it as she leans back against a lamp post. A street busker makes music behind her right ear.

But her eyes are forward, watching the way double-taking, turning people recognize and heckle James Barnes moving past them. Natasha tilts her head. She aims a finger-gun and fires three imaginary killshots through hecklers' heads. Bang, bang, bang, the whispered undertow of her voice.

She hands her half-finished shake to some homeless man waving a sign. And as James Barnes disappears, so does the Widow.

A few minutes later, she hikes the last ladder up to that roof. Natasha could be soundless about it, but her boots scrape brick and concrete as she arranges herself to perch on the ledge.

Since their reunion, James has kept track of Natasha from afar. Each time he visits the Triskelion, he's picked up a little more about her. Not through direct inquiry, of course, but through the way people speak about her and the types of missions she seems to be put on. It's enough for him to form a picture of what his erstwhile student and partner in crime has gotten up to in the many decades since they last parted.

He considered the partial image, shook his head, and decided that was probably the best that could be hoped for, after everything.

On some level, he is aware that she is aware of his presence in the Triskelion. He would expect no less of her. He did, after all, walk directly into the heart of her new web. He doesn't make any fuss about it, however — does not try to ferret her out, nor inquire directly about her. It commands enough of his attention, dealing with the fascination and wariness and generally-mixed emotions of the SHIELD agents who surround him — and then dealing with the substance of the interview itself.

He is drained by the time he emerges. But not so drained that he can't lose a couple hecklers with dismissive ease, though his eyes tighten a little in a telltale sign that the substance of the words was not missed. Traitor, baby-killer, murderer, terrorist. And he dares to show his face in public?

James Barnes removes it from their sight, obligingly. He turns a corner and vanishes.

Fifteen minutes later, his lonely perch is graced with a visitor. One who lets him know in no uncertain terms that she is behind him. Assassin's professional courtesy. He doesn't turn around from where he's seated on the raised lip at the opposite side of the roof, smoking in silence as he watches the street and waits for the crowds to thin, but he is obviously aware she is there.

"Kak dela, Natasha?" he asks, exhaling a stream of smoke. He uses the nickname she's chosen for the West. He gestures with the cigarette-holding hand at the vista across the street — or lack thereof. "You ever lucky enough to get sent to New York before 1963?"

The woman unwinds to her full height. It is a slow, leisurely movement, done with both her heels balanced off the same lip's edge of the roof.

Perfect balance. Perfect awareness of self. It is liquid-like, the way Romanova walks, something unnatural about it — machine smoothness that can never look completely human.

Natalia tilts her head and considers the Winter Soldier's turned back. Perhaps she is seeing him. Perhaps she is seeing memory instead; she has quite a bit of it. Eighty years of unimpeded experience, and not a lick of it frozen away.

He speaks to her.

She moves again, a decided stride, and situates herself at his right side. He faces out, looking on the city long away and far below, and Natalia faces in, lowering herself down to sit with her back propped up against that same upraised edge, one arm thrown companionably over it.

Her blue eyes stare forward. Natalia's back to old habits; the days she always watched his six.

"Doing just swell, Bucky Barnes," she says, turning him a quick glance, her expression flat before the corner of her mouth quirks up.

She extends a hand, fingers slightly curled. Not to shake, not to greet hello. Good comrades share their cigarettes.

"When was I ever lucky?" Natalia intones, amused. "Sadly, no. Closest was Florida. Thank Cuba for that one."

Blue eyes turn to her at the breezy Bucky Barnes. He notes the instant of flat expression, the quirk of the mouth, the subsequent reach of her hand.

He notes how she's sitting. His eyes soften briefly.

"I am glad to hear it, Natalia Alianovna," he says wryly, changing back to English and staying there, plucking the cigarette from his mouth and handing it over despite the obvious shape of the pack in his coat pocket.

His mouth thins a little at her question when she was ever lucky, though a moment later it curves into a rueful smirk at mention of Cuba. "Pity," he says. "You would've got to see the old Penn Station before they tore it down."

He reaches out his hand to demand the cigarette back. "I come here sometimes when I feel particularly tragic," he says archly. "Nothing to make a man feel tragic like looking at the atrocity that replaced it."

Her long fingers steal the cigarette with a surgical care. They do not even brush his.

Natalia Romanova had cold hands sixty years ago and continents away. It is hard to say if that about her has changed.

The rest of her stands untouched by time. Whatever they pumped into her vein, their old, Soviet masters, they did when Natalia Romanova was young. Her unlined beauty is no different from decades ago. She will stay this beautiful even as all those countless people passing below wither and loosen and let go into dirt and dust.

Natasha brings the cigarette to her lips and takes a long drag of toxins that will never kill her. She inhales and lets go a breath of smoke. It does not bring relief to her face. It neither offers her pleasure.

She taps ashes like a seasoned smoker. She's probably had to be one many times in her life.

Her blue eyes slant up at the corners, smiling, at the sound of her name off the Soldier's lips. Humour, like someone getting a joke, ancient and still funny — even now.

"Hey, the new one has utility," she argues, bogarting one more drag before she passes the cigarette back. "Nothing wrong with utility. You boys need everything in your life to look pretty."

Her eyes cut back. She watches him. Watches his face as he says the word 'tragic.' Natalia considers for a beat. "Do you want me to help?"

Their hands, as they exchange that cigarette, are as unlined and unchanged as they were sixty years past, when they laid along one another's skin instead of ghosting past one another like ships in the dark. Both of them have escaped the ravages of time, whether from the run of foreign chemicals in their veins or from the preserving effects of years of ice.

James looks at Natalia, askance, his blue eyes pensive. There is a definite cast to his gaze of a man admiring something he remembers as beautiful and which has remained beautiful, though it is hard to say whether it is a man admiring a beautiful woman, or a man admiring a beautiful piece of art.

Her answer is a private joke. Humored, he replies in kind.

Reclaiming the cigarette after a beckon of two fingers, he takes and handles it by habit with the caution of a soldier, turning it so the burning end is hidden from sight in his hand. He does it without thought, the small tic betraying a life lived in perpetual danger.

A smirk plays about his mouth at her rejoinder. "Of course we do," he says, flicking the cigarette around so he can stick it back in his mouth. He lofts a brow at her, the expression echoing the insouciant, appreciative way he used to look at her decades ago. "Why do you think I kept you around so long, Natashenka?"

Her subsequent question silences him. He slants her a look, blue eyes shaded through the rising smoke, before his gaze turns away. He watches an American flag fluttering from the top of a building down the block. There is little in his face as he speaks of tragedy, not even the tragedy he speaks of. In his face, there is no sadness, no resignation, little anger, and decades of exhaustion.

"How would you help, Natalia?" he finally settles on asking.

And Natalia Romanova remains admirably beautiful.

What makes pieces of art so beautiful is their life behind glass: their long, careful years of untouchability. There is something similar in her face, among her unweathered, unlined features, in the still-soft lines of her cheeks and the youthful slant of her mouth: the remove of beautiful, cold marble.

She does not seem to mind James's eyes on her. Perhaps too-used to these sorts of looks. Perhaps long habituated to them that they are just another automatic process, like someone who would care to notice or count the breaths of her lungs.

Sixty years ago, the young Natalia would reply them with a glance, her eyes a roulette spin testing him farther. Now, she seems tired of it all.

Still, his quip makes her smile. Her retort is to reach and steal back the cigarette from his mouth. That's what happens when you're a smartass.

Stealing a drag, Natalia reclines back, pillowing her head comfortably on concrete. A lock of her red hair dangles over the lip of the roof.

"Do you really need to ask?" she replies, feigning indignation. "Am I being tested?"

Her eyes path up the long lines of Manhattan skyscrapers. "Falsified evidence. Witness tampering. Something slipped in to spike the jury pool. Malicious prosecution makes it so easy to entrap, and your new friend is pretty malicious. If you want to single him out, heart attacks are common in the profession. Happen every day. I could even make it toxic shock, if you want. I've done that before." Her smile widens. "They would say it's from the stick up his ass."

Natalia taps ashes. "Or I could tell them all what happened to me."

A life behind glass. James knows something about that, though for him it was more like a life on ice. Youth and strength preserved in the frost of an unending winter. It was hard, being in and out of freeze, losing years and decades between each sleep-wake, yet he would still choose it over the continuous and unbroken life Natalia has led.

He can see the effect such an unnatural life span has already had on her, in the faraway look of her eyes and her indifference to his own lingering gaze.

That too, is different. If he had looked this pensively at her sixty years ago, she would have teased and tested him until she ferreted out exactly what it was he meant by such thoughtful stares… or else, would have decided for him what she felt such a thoughtful stare should receive for its reward. Nowadays, she just smiles at his bad jokes, and steals back the cigarette. He lets it go, perhaps thinking the punishment deserved.

His question, valid as it is, must still pay the toll of her insouciance before it receives an answer. He waits patiently through her feigned affront. "You passed all your tests sixty-odd years ago," he says. "This is only a question. Yasha wouldn't need to ask this question, but I do."

He listens in silence to the answer, his features blank to her suggestions even as they grow more and more heinous. They are things the two of them are familiar with doing, things they have done many times over the years. He does not react, accordingly, up until she throws a curveball of an answer in last. Something wholly new.

She could tell everyone what happened to her.

He instantly winces. It is an understated mouth-thinning, a purse of the mouth that says volumes. "No. No need for that. Not unless it's a story you want to now tell."

Natalia steals another drag from the cigarette. This, too, comes without pleasure or any sort of relief. Would that chemical they pumped into her even allow her the indulgence of addiction?

She smokes like it's just another script to fill empty space and passing time. Something to waste another eighty years on.

Exhaling smoke, she draws the same cigarette to appraise it under the hooded watch of her blue eyes. Eventually, that inspection switches to the nails of her own curled fingers. She tilts her head in the way of a woman trying to recall her last manicure.

When he speaks at her side, referring to Yakov Vasilevich Morozov as if he were their mutual acquaintance, a friend both here and yet not, Natalia slants James a look. Her face is a lock. She takes no more draws of his cigarette, and politely hands it back.

Folding an arm behind her head, the woman leans back, one long leg crossed over the other.

The wince does not draw her eyes, though Natalia surely must see it. Her bored eyes stare straight forward. "I haven't wanted anything for a long time. Are you sure? I know I owe you a debt or four. I have immunity in exchange for my outstanding service, so they can't touch me. Won't even extradite the prodigal widow home to the Motherland."

James watches Natalia as she smokes in silence. The rote emptiness of the gesture is not lost on him. He feels that same indifference now when he smokes — the banal pointlessness of the gesture when one's body has become, by injection and by the horrible miracles of science, stronger than most things that would seek to alter or break it down. Nicotine included.

"I miss getting an effect from cigarettes," he mentions, apropos of nothing. "Used to cut down on the appetite, back when things were lean. Settled the nerves, too. Now it's just blowing smoke." He shrugs. "I guess the motions alone serve to soothe."

He takes the cigarette back, when offered, despite his commentary. He smokes with equivalent indifference as she did, waiting for her reply to his denial.

"Yeah," he eventually says. "You do owe me a couple debts. But I seem to recall owing you a couple, too. And it's not just about your immunity, or your extradition. There's other consequences." His blue eyes are steady on hers, with a look in them Yakov Vasilevich Morozov never had for Natalia Alianovna Romanova. This is a look from James Buchanan Barnes to Natasha Romanova, a look that wants to give her — something. A look that doesn't want to buy his own life by selling hers.

She hasn't wanted anything for a long time.

"You wanted this, didn't you?" he asks. The hand holding the cigarette gestures an eloquent half-circle. "You wanted something that caused you to wind up here."

Motions alone that serve to soothe.

Natalia stays quiet throughout all of James's words, though her eyes do not consider him: they look up and far away, pathing up the midtown skyscrapers to see into a small, secret patch of sky. Blue gazes on blue.

It's hard to tell whether she is even listening. Though he knows her well enough to be sure.

Her hands join together, either absently or deliberately, her forefinger and thumb tracing the knuckles of her opposite trigger finger. Right-handed Natalia. It curls slightly and she runs its sixty-year callus. Motions that serve to soothe.

With her turned eyes still distant, Natalia does not speak as James Barnes offers his judgment. Or his protection. Or his pity. Finally, he looks at her, and for reasons unknown, it compels Natasha's blue eyes. Meeting those of a man who never existed sixty years ago in the first cold winter after the Red Room.

"They caught me fair and square, Barnes," Natasha corrects, holding onto that last syllable a beat too long to connote something like she's pitying him. Pitying whatever softness is there to look for things that can't exist. "I've watched far too many sisters choose glory, and they die for cause or country. They fell all the same way for the Motherland." She lets her hands go. "I was offered an alternative. And it makes me a traitor and a coward. It's not about wanting anything. It's that glory isn't real."

Is Natalia ever truly not listening? Can a woman raised as she was ever truly stop listening?

James watches with his own pair of blue eyes. He watches the woman, not the sky. He watches the movement of her hands. He watches her reaction — or lack thereof — as she listens to his refusal to use her life to pay for his own. It could be taken as pity, as some unwantedly chauvinistic gesture, even as a dismissal — after all, this is not something she offers lightly.

Of the many ways she could take it, she chooses to take it one way. Her returned answer, he too could choose to take in any number of ways.

He wants to hackle at her perceived pity. Pity for his weakness and his softness, to search for the frailty of humanity and emotion in someone like the Black Widow. But then again, it was the Winter Soldier who would be most offended to be thought of as soft. James Buchanan Barnes, on the other hand, understands there is some value in searching for the humanity in others, no matter how soft it makes one seem.

Barnes, she says. The choice of name transparently draws his eyes. He looks at her a long moment, this man both so like and unlike the Yasha she remembers, sixty years ago.

"They caught you," he agrees. "But they only caught you once."

His eyes turn away. "I never knew you to be a coward. And who I was, sixty years ago… there was enough of me there, in that person, for me to know you." A pause. "And you to know me."

They only caught her once.

Natasha Romanova stares up and up and so far away. Her eyes are glass, so blue that perhaps it was never their true colour. Perhaps all this time every look into her eyes has been reflecting the sky, the water, the colour that represents all the richness of life: a perfect mirage to convince the world she is alive too.

His words burden the open space between them. The woman says nothing back.

Silence follows in its usual, thick draught. She's always had a habit of dismissing the things she does not choose to hear.

Then comes the first and only warning, there in a split-second: the whistle of motion cut through air. Because the woman at his right side knows how and at which angle to move that not an inch or ounce of her troubles James Barnes's closest periphery. There is only that whistle, the bullet-quick displacement of air, and —

— her leg, swung on a violent arc to try to catch him cleanly, soundly, across his waist. He faces out, but this is no strike aimed to want to send him forward, out into the open air. This is try to tilt him backwards, down onto the rooftop, and with Natalia over him, a knee locked down over his chest. She looms over him, her dangling hair framing her face like fire. Her hands stay free, no weapon in them, none of her guns, and either no willingness nor need to touch him. Her head tilts.

"Do you?" she questions.

It seems Natalia can stop listening — when things are said that she chooses not to hear.

In the same way, James Barnes can stop reacting, when actions are taken that he does not wish to resist. He does not respond to the whipcrack of movement that is Natasha sliding into his blindspot. He does not twitch to try to defend himself when her leg scissors out to knock him flat to his back to the rooftop.

He does not even flick a lash when she pins him under her knee. His chest rises and falls under her at the same patient pace as always.

Does he?

"More than most," he says. "Unless you have always lied to me."

His blue eyes look up at her. There is nothing in them but patience. "In which case, I don't know you. But you still know me."

"I lie to everyone," Natalia counters, matter-of-fact, with a hood to her eyes that speaks awareness to the inherent paradox of her claim. "Some lies just have more truth in them than others."

Neither does she take her knee from his chest nor does she make any move to let him up. She remains there, a lean, light weight, yet with a sinewy power to her limbs that can back up the intent flaring free from her blue eyes. Natalia Romanova was strong even before the Soviets bit their venom into her vein. Strong enough to survive them.

Her head tilts the other way, the gesture animal-like, with her eyes focused down on James Barnes's face. She must be able to feel him breathing, slowly, calmly, under her knee. She must be able to feel the patient meter of his heart.

Sixty years ago, she would time her rifle assembly by his heartbeat.

Her arms brace down against her knee, but Natalia neither confirms nor denies whether he knows her. Instead, she leans down even farther, her face drawing closer to James.

"Do I?" she asks. Her eyes leisurely trace the features on his face. "I know a man named Yakov. I even know the Winter Soldier. I do not know James Barnes."

James' mouth quirks with humor at Natalia's insistence she lies to everyone. "Is that a lie, Natalia?" he asks, without expecting any kind of answer.

That same patience of his does not falter as she leans her weight a little harder down, folding her arms on her pinning knee. As she cants her head and dips down closer to inspect him. Does she really know him? She knew the Winter Soldier, but this man named James Barnes —

"The Winter Soldier was a lie with some truth in it," he says, his voice the audible equivalent of a shrug. "Just like you said. They made the base of him off my template. I think you got to know more of James Barnes than you think."

It's probably why he has such trouble separating himself from the actions of the Winter Soldier, even now.

His head turns, his gaze skating off to one side, going distant. It is an odd show of trust, the way he takes his eyes off her and lets her see the line of his throat. "Besides… Winter Soldier, Yakov Vasilevich Morozov, Sergeant James Barnes, even — " he smiles wryly, knowing her disgust of the name, "Bucky Barnes. They're all one in the same, in a way."

He blinks calmly. His heart drones on patiently beneath her. It is a familiar sound to her — and the rise and fall of his chest, a familiar sensation.

"I think sometimes," he admits, "the only real difference between any of them is how much they actively restrain themselves." It is telling he speaks even of the Winter Soldier in present tense.

And, true to his prediction, no answer comes to James's quip.

Natalia only stares down at him, equal parts curiousity, equal parts a surgical dissection. She curls her back and leans down so close that the ends of her long hair brush his shoulders. The distant sun shines through its ruddy wing, and lights it with all the colours of a sunset.

She does not waste time or spirit on feigning a smile. It could mean one of those rare, too-few, counted on the fingers of his metal hand memories where Romanova demanded seriousness. Even then, she feigned deep and painful gravitas too: that was always one of her more favourite games.

Her blue eyes read his face through every one of his words. Her knee presses a little more securely to his chest.

Not a threat or a show of force. Sneaky little Widow is counting his heartrate. Lie detection.

She usually does not mind such things. Why does Romanova seem intent to chase the same truth she, herself, refuses from her person?

Natalia considers James Barnes and Winter Soldier both with her eyes. He speaks of restraint in the present, and she tilts her head, taking in the gestalt of him laying dormant under her knee.

"I offered myself. I offered the opportunity for you to use me," she speaks quietly. "Is it the Winter Soldier who turns me down, or is it James Barnes?"

She leans down close enough to see the memories pooled in his blue eyes. He looks up at her with an intimate sort of recollection, remembering other moments — decades dead — where she would mantle over him, just like this. He remembers her hair against his bare skin. It shines now with the same sun-drenched color it did when they were sent off to Cuba, just the two of them, and they let the unaccustomed warmth and softness — far from the brutal cold of Russia — make them careless and self-indulgent.

That was the last mission they had before he was returned to the ice.

He is aware, even now, that her seriousness could be no more than another game. Long ago, he took her already-existing forbearance and reserve, and forged her into a vow never, ever, to be weak. To never wear any piece of her heart on her sleeve. It does not escape him, the irony that he now faces down a guarded and unscalable wall that is partially of his own creation. That he has only himself to thank for how unreadable she now is.

Though he knows exactly what she's doing with the press of her knee. Some things just can't be hidden. A brow tilts at her in wordless see-what-you-did-there.

Eventually, she finally asks a question. He considers her, for a time.

"Both would have turned you down," he finally says. His blue eyes glance up into hers. "Neither want to use you. Both care for you… more than to do that."

It is impossible to tell if those same memories burn at the backs of her blue eyes.

Memories to him still so fresh between the freezes. Memories to her separated by the wealth of decades. Decades of murder. Decades of lies. Decades for the Black Widow to hunt and survive alone.

Whatever thought lurks in Natalia's dupliticious head, she neither moves nor dismisses James back to his freedom. Here she remains, mantled over him, pinning him into place and yet never touching, with her blue eyes burned into his.

Whatever her motive, she wants an answer. She stares through his tilted brow, dismissing its taunt as if it never existed in her reality. She stares through the time he takes to speak. Her gaze is patient, no longer the reckless burn of someone young and wilful and invincible, but a woman long-lived, and long-learned that there are some things worth waiting.

Such as this.

James's words arrest Natalia. No smart remarks. No returns. No dismissals. Her eyes scrape his face, fiercely, roughly, as if searching for a weak point to push under the skin and search deep.

The widow leans closer, a daring half-inch that brings her face within a whisper of his. Her expression, a perfect artifact of the Red Room, lets nothing past. Though as she lets herself dangle like a guillotine blade, so close he can feel the phantom warmth off her skin, there comes one tell that she may not even realize.

Natalia Romanova is holding her breath.

Her knee lifts free and she rises to a stand, tall, receding, already a shadow slanting away against the lowering of the sun. "You're wrong," she declares. "I don't know you."

Finally, she turns to put her back to him, if only because she moves, one hand on the edge of the roof with the intention to vault herself over. "Good luck, James."

She studies him from her perch atop him. It is a familiar vantage for him.

The sight of her, the feel of her, circulates memories in his blue eyes, memories kept cool and fresh by the same freezes that kept him young. His right hand twitches at his side, moving slightly before falling still again.

He blinks up at her, slow and patient, and does not close that last half-inch of distance between them. There is a gulf between them that belies the scant physical space separating their bodies. He can see decades in her eyes, endless spans of unbroken time in which she has lived without him, and those many long years have made of her someone he both recognizes and does not recognize.

He searches her face, in the wake of his answer, as deeply and assiduously as she searches his.

She comes closer, even closer. Close enough that he can feel a telling absence. She is holding her breath in the wake of his answer.

And then she peels herself free, with such efficiency she might as well be removing a band-aid. You're wrong, she decides. I don't know you.

He does not answer. He only looks at her, with the knowing world-weary gaze of a teacher who has heard it all. Every last justification.

James sits up as she turns to go. He makes no attempt to stop her.

"Good luck, Natalia Alianovna," is all he murmurs instead, letting that be his goodbye.

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