AoA: Klyatva

October 18, 2017:

After the altercation with Danielle Moonstar and James Barnes, the former Black Widow is brought back to New York. She and the man she knew as the Winter Soldier finally have a moment to reunite after over twenty years, and he catches her up on the events as of late — and makes her an offer.

A secure room, the Triskelion, AoA

Characters

NPCs: None.

Mentions:

Mood Music: [*\# None.]


Fade In…

The trip back from the Badlands was a somber one, full of heavy silences and bleak thoughts. James made sure that Natalia remained blissfully unconscious, and that Moonstar's wound was seen to. Beyond that, he said and did little, all the long way back.

His status ensured that he was able to bring Natalia into the Triskelion with him, but once it came out who she was — who she had been — she had been placed in a high-security holding area. James had remarked rather acerbically that the USSR was long dead, and that the enemies they faced now formidable enough that they could certainly use all the help they could get — and that, from her behavior, the Black Widow was certainly extremely opposed to Apocalypse and all his forces. That argument had been enough to get the wheels turning in the right people's heads.

Notably, James had not argued with keeping her in a high-security room. He even left orders that no one should go near it, on pain of their own potential death to the angry woman within.

Eventually, however, with the immediate matters surrounding her retrieval seen to, James returns to her. He wishes to be present when she awakens. He thinks it best the explanations come from him.

Thus it is that when Natalia wakens, it will not be to torture, or interrogation, or even all that much privation. She wakens… in a state of warm comfort, actually, oddly enough. The lower half of her is lain along a bed, clean and simple, in a room that is admittedly undoubtedly a holding cell, but not one indifferent to the comfort or human dignity of its occupant. It is clean, and it is well-lit.

There is someone else in it with her.

The man she knew as Yasha sits on the bed with her, cradling her upper half in his lap. Here is the source of the warmth. His right hand is resting on her hair, fingers tangled in the red strands mid-pet, his back leaned against one wall. His eyes are closed, as if he dozed off while sitting up waiting for her to wake.

The infamous Black Widow remains a cooperative hostage.

Rendered unconscious — helpless to the world the first time in decades — by Moonstar's psychic arrow, and kept under by a helpful cocktail of drugs administered by James Barnes, Natalia gives neither of them no trouble. She never wakes. She never so much as stirs. She breathes so slowly, so shallowly, that at points looks lttle more than a corpse.

It's the most peaceful he's seen her, though involuntarily so, in a long time.

They find weapons on Romanova, supplies, a well-worn local map marked with familiar sites — local camps where dissidents are kept, targets of importance, and a heavy circle around Seattle — dogged with notes scrawled in an old code. An artifact of the Red Room impossible to break.

But among her things are none of the Widow's usual arsenal, no traces of communication in and out, no orders from new masters. Her few possessions bear the mark of a consummate drifter, a woman who has spent a long, aimless, and quiet life along.

At the bottom of her bag is the only anything of importance: a small, half-scorched diary, its papers yellowed from a fire and too many rainy days of travel. They are ink-written with the cursive of a young girl, who calls herself Natalia, and talks effusively and proudly of her life, her parents, her third year as a schoolgirl in Stalingrad, and especially about her cat. In the summer of 1942, those entries end.

Locked into that high-security room, walled away from Triskelion agents for as much their protection as her own detention, the first prisoner of the pioneering Avengers —

— sleeps unknowingly in the arms of its would-be leader, arranged harmlessly, her red hair tangling his fingers. Very much alive, Natalia has not aged a day since so many decades ago. Not a mark on her, as if the devastation that took the world left her behind — though both of them, with their unnatural bodies, know better.

Her mind returns her in pointless dreams, most of them memory, a night long ago when she ducked her handlers, scaled two buildings, and waited out an hour-patrol to slip into the room of her trainer and have her hair pet in this manner for the rest of the night. Natalia, for a moment, thinks she's back there, and she comes awake slowly, gently, a rare moment where she exists in perfect trust.

Then she remembers. The here, the now, and with whom — /he/ who is alive, gutting her out again to realize it, and has her somewhere with him. Natalia has so many questions, but there is no time for them.

One hand flies up. He'll know where. He trained this carotid strike.

There is a deep wrongness to seeing Natalia so unaware of her surroundings. She is never this helpless, never this unprepared. He could kill her and she would never know. She would go to sleep forever, wondering if her Winter Soldier died twenty years ago after all.

He does no such thing. He adjusts the drugs painstakingly to never come close to doing her harm. He oversees the people who search her, hackling if their hands are too rough. He confiscates, for his own perusal, those items of hers that seem more personal — too personal to be pawed through by strangers.

He does not leave her side until she is safely secured in that room. Then he returns to his own office, holding the diary in hand. He reads through it — it does not take long. His reaction necessitates him closing and locking his door.

When he emerges again, half an hour later, he is composed again, and he returns immediately to Natalia's room. Dismissing the guards watching over her door, he slips within to sit with her.

That is how she awakens, some time later. Some old recollection of that night that, even now, haunts Natalia's dreamed memories, brings him to repeat what he did those many decades ago. He held her then, and pet her hair, and rewarded her efforts to steal into his room with a few hours of comfort, warmth, and trust.

Trust. That last thing was the most valuable thing, to creatures like them. They could trust nothing else, but they could trust one another.

That was many decades ago, however. Now, when she awakes, and sees him leaned over her, she reacts instantly in attack.

Unfortunately, it is one of the attacks he taught to her.

His right hand cuts in and blocks, stopping her strike before curling around her wrist. His eyes crease unhappily as his left arm tightens, holding her calmly in place. "Natalia," he says, his voice a soothe. "You're safe."

The heel of her hand glances off his, barred inches from his throat.

Furious, she turns her hand to parry, but Yasha is quick and learned, and steals her wrist. Natalia's pulse flutters panic against his fingers.

They imbued her with a similar poison once run through her blood, and it burned Natalia Romanova with so many unasked-for gifts, but even now she cannot match his strength.

She remembers this too; she knows this well. With her hand caught, she twists her body, coiling to use her legs — but he shifts his left arm, and with a plate-shift grind she'd not heard in decades, his metal arm locks to band her still.

Natalia rages, looking by all appearances a small, fierce, feral animal caught in a snare, ready to turn on any hand that comes too close: to skin it or save it, she doesn't care.

Her blue eyes blink rapidly, unfocused still, though her unnatural body is already metabolizing away drugs that'd have others comatose another day, and the last Widow stares up, caught, terrified, and stripped of every last thing but a long-lived will to survive.

She struggles a moment, but he holds patiently strong, until her breathing thins, and there is little room left for Natalia to merely react.

Her blue eyes find his, Yasha Morozov, eyes so equally blue and twenty-two years thought dead. Unable to fight her way out, and told now of all things by him — by him — she is safe, there is little left for Natalia than to go back to her questions. She weaponizes them the best she can.

"You're dead," she snaps back, her hoarse, rough words speaking only in Russian. "I spent years finding where they took you! Where they kept you! It was ash! It was gone! There was nothing left!"

He knows the parry she tries. He taught her that too. Sad-eyed and patient, James turns his hand to stymie her attempt, his fingers closing around her wrist.

And that's game over. No matter her enhancements, she never could outmatch him in raw strength. Were this fifty years ago, he might have subsequently broken her wrist for being so careless, let her heal it up in med ward as a punishment for letting him catch her. That was how he taught, back then.

Then later, he might have snuck in her window. Later, he might have kissed her wrist better.

No time for that now, however. Furious, she tries to twist away, using her legs if she cannot use her arms or hands. He is prepared for that too. His left winches shut around her, reeling her in and holding her pinned against himself. The metal grinds, a familiar sound that used to lullaby her to sleep so many times before —

She can't think about that. She doesn't. She rages instead, caught between fury and abject terror. The terror of a creature bred only to survive, and feeling that it is about to fail at that prime directive.

But no pain comes. No killing blow. No torture, no more drugs, no pain. There is only Yasha looking down at her, his same face and his same blue eyes, but with a different kind of sadness in his tired gaze. Yasha is there… but someone else is, too. She can see that much, with her perceptiveness.

She snaps back at him in Russian. He grimaces, but he switches back as well, his voice finding the language again after years.

"I'm sorry," he says again, uselessly, but meaning it. "I was… on a mission when it happened. My prison burned, but not me with it. I was free. I went back to look for you, but where I thought to find you… that was ash, too. I thought you were dead. I had nothing left but who I used to be."

He is holding his breath, as if against a blow. "I came back to America. To help rebuild it."

Over so many years, among so many countless nights, all Natalia dreamed was to be in his arms again.

And here she is.

He pulls her close to divest the Widow of all her fangs, and her heart pounds against his chest, her skin flushes warmth, and her eyes burn caustic. Natalia Romanova, despite her fiery hair, was always a sliver of cold, quiet and careful and chilly in every way, because patterns of frost can never be predicted, can never be decoded, can never be reproduced.

But as the world burned, so did she, reborn into something new within its boiling crucible. It cooked away decades of cold, of lies, of duplicity, and turned Natalia into the woman he now holds.

She can't disguise anything from her too-bright eyes, or the despair that flinches her features at the way Yasha Morozov says he's sorry.

The woman still trembles where he holds her, with betrayal and fury and panic, unable yet to trust what he says — and her eyes look away, pulling from eyes and rolling up to the ceiling as if to beseech something she's never spoken to before. Is this really happening?

Natalia tries to search her recent memory, still bleary with drugs and nightmares, remembering only the Dark Rider, an arrow, a madness, and him. What if she is still mad? What if, somewhere back there, between shots of her rifle, she lost her mind? What if —

"I did die," she whispers hollowly. "I was there, and I burned away in that fire. Maybe I'm dead, and that's why you're here."

Her eyes close briefly as if to wish it could be true.

They open again on him, reading the many differences on his face. She is changed, and him too, and in so many ways unfamiliar: did they do this to him? Did he do this to himself?

Natalia stares up at Yasha, cornered, confused, devastated, and looking on her way to quiet abandonment. She doesn't understand. "Came back implies you left."

She is so different from the woman he first held nearly fifty years ago. The opaque caprice of crawling frost has been burned away, leaving nothing but what was always there behind those ever-changing lies: the singular, flickering intensity of a candle flame. He can read every single emotion on her face, no deceptiveness or duplicity left to her.

It unnerves him to see her so nakedly honest. But he supposes it's only fair. He must unnerve her too. He is an entirely different man, now, than the one she first met, though if he were honest he would not say that meant he was completely changed. The Winter Soldier left his mark on James Barnes, and never can the two be separated again.

I did die, she whispers. His eyes crease. His right hand lets go her wrist, reaching up to take her face and cradle it in his palm. His fingers brush along her skin. Still smooth and unmarked, despite all she has been through. It's their curse, he supposes… their curse never to wear the hardships of their lives in any visible way. Never to feel part of the world. Never to be touched by any of it.

His thumb dares the curve of her lips. It traces them in a swipe of warmth. "Death doesn't feel like that," he says. A sad half-smile pulls at the corner of his mouth. "And if it did, I think I'd prefer it, actually."

He falls silent as she studies his face, searching out all the differences — and then, with her usual perceptiveness, picking up on his phrasing. Came back implies he left. His jaw tightens as he tries to figure out how to phrase this. It will be a shock to her. It was a shock to him, those many years ago.

"I did leave it," he admits. "I left it in 1941. And I never got to go home."

His hand shifts to cradle her jaw, as if to better brace her against this impending blow. "I was born in New York," he says. "In 1917. I went to war in 1941, an American soldier. I was wounded in 1945, and that was when the Soviet Union found me." His mouth tightens. "I had been a test subject for varieties of the serum. A successful subject. They saw this, and they took me and made me into the Winter Soldier. That was the reason they took me away from you. I would remember if I was out too long. They had to put me in freeze."

He looks down, into her eyes. "They told me hundreds of lies. You were the only thing I had that was ever real."

He does unnerve her.

Just as difficult as it is to see Yasha Morozov back from the dead, Natalia suffers to see him so different — so changed. Not the invisible, weightless weapon of the Motherland: the man no one she'd ever seen before, known, or met — a man who taught Natalia her lessons to serve the state faithfully, while teaching her to make the first decision for herself.

He was her first choice: the first anything she ever wanted among so many years of suffering and sacrifice. He was her most favourite lie of all, because it was one she never once tried to tell herself.

But now something weighs down his blue eyes, something Natalia both knows intimately and yet has never before seen: not on him. The Winter Soldier was a man without doubt. Without guilt.

He lets her hand go; it is a risk, to give Natalia Romanova back one of her most trusted weapons, and her fingers momentarily curl with instinct to punish him for this weakness, this mistake.

His hand instead touches her face, and her hand surrenders. Natalia closes her eyes, momentarily unravelled, for a moment unable to feel anything but the deep pang in her chest. it hurts after two decades of believing such a thing would never happen again.

Her lips bow under his sweeping touch, opening slightly with unspoken question. It writes all across her face the instant Yasha speaks that year: 1941.

The Winter Soldier, or Yasha Morozov, or James Barnes, or all three — decidedly takes her jaw in hand, and Natalia tenses, sensing the gesture immediately for what it is, some compassionate brace for something he needs to say. Confusion always made her feel unsteady, and the Black Widow was never made for surprises, for the unexpected. She's supposed to know first.

He tells her who he is.

For a heartbeat, Natalia stares up incredulously, looking through his face for the deceit, for doubt. She finds none. Her breath sharpens, and her gaze changes, no longer surgical, but searching, seeing for herself all the evidence in him that would make this true. The gravity in his eyes. Pieces of a man never met, who was always there — watching from the wings as she fell in love with another fucking Soviet lie.

Startled tears blink from her eyes, and her breath catches because she sees it too, believes it. She doesn't even know what to feel. She thinks she's feeling everything, every emotion her weary heart can handle —

Until Natalia starts laughing, lowly, softly, bitterly, just enough left in her to get the joke in a seventy-year punchline. "An American," she rasps, voice thick, "of all things."

His blue eyes capture hers. She cannot look away as he calls her real, the only real thing he ever owned. Tears hang in the cages of her lashes. "I don't even know your name."

He is changed. And not because the man she knew is gone. He is still there, in bits and pieces, but now he is mixed in with — someone else. Someone who looks down at her with things shining in his eyes that Yakov Vasilevich Morozov never expressed.

The Winter Soldier did not know doubt, nor guilt, nor fear.

He did not make mistakes, either. Not mistakes like the one he makes when he releases her hand, letting her go to potentially hurt him again. The instinct is there — he must see the twitch of her fingers — but he ignores it, choosing instead to focus on laying his hand to her face, and brushing a touch along her lips. For decades, he too thought this was lost to him forever, and for a moment he is tempted to avoid the inevitable, and let this moment stretch out.

He has to tell her, though, and better sooner than later. He takes her more bracingly, steadying her by the jaw, and instantly she knows something is coming. Something that will hurt. Something that will unwrite her reality as she knows it.

He tells her who he really is. And when her eyes ask his face for the truth, his expression — open, bare, and honest — answers loud and clear. There is no deception in his eyes, no telltale flicker of a lie being told, no doubt that would indicate a story not fully firmed up against interrogatory prodding.

He is an American, stolen away to become the Winter Soldier. All along, he was an American, and what she chose to want — chose to love — chose to choose, in a life otherwise devoid of autonomy, was just another Soviet lie. The last laugh of the USSR. What she thought was her first decision was, in the end, just her falling for another pretty fabrication.

There is enough Yasha in James' blue eyes, though, to make one wonder how much of a lie it wound up being, in the end.

In the end, she laughs. What else is there for her to do but laugh? James regards her in tired silence, before he too cracks an exhausted, bitter smile. Not even he can fail to see the fucking joke of it all. "They fucked us both," he says. "They would call me Orel, and laugh. They knew."

She doesn't even know his name.

"My name is James," he says. His mouth smiles, but his eyes do not. "James Barnes. Yakov was not far off after all. They gave me a fake name and a fake life. But they didn't give me you. I chose you. They separated us for that."

He quirks a brow. "No one is separating us here," he says, some of that wry, dark humor she remembers shining through. "I'm too important now."

"James," repeats Natasha, and some things carry from decades ago —

— such as the way she can make one word sound so many things at once, a hello and a goodbye, uncertainty and understanding, discovery and quiet mourning.

She takes this revelation in with a breath of air, and lets it go. Lets the truth settle and change her too into something new. Blue eyes meet blue eyes, and hers shine brief and transparent with old memory. "I'm glad for it. You always looked like a Yasha to me."

Perhaps it's that Natalia's already seen the world end that she can accept this too, her past turned on her, and so much of what she remembers being seeded with constant lies. She looks Yasha Morozov — no, James Barnes over, in this moment the dawn of truth baring his familiar face to her in new, unfamiliar light.

As she lived and breathed for her state, she secreted an American into her bed. The arbitrations of the living world are so meaningless.

Whoever may be looking down on her, James or Yasha, or what Natalia thinks may be a blending of the two, she pauses, and finally moves the hand he let free.

This time, the Widow does not strike. She reaches up for him, hesitating only when her fingers come within hairs of touching. Then, in one last decision — a choice of her own — the pads of her fingers trace his face.

Decades ago, Natalia would have asked a single question: so what're you going to feed me? Simple, innocuous, and one of their old code phrases. The answer would inform her whether he's in deep cover, if he's possibly a plant in wherever he's taken her, and among a few words inform her what he needs her to do.

Now, however, she is tired. Tired enough to forego their old games and speak a truth for once.

"You're going to have to kill me," she tells him quietly, a matter-of-fact weight to her voice that gives no condemnation. There's almost something like a smile in her tired, blue eyes. "Sheltering the Dark Rider makes you an agent of that son of a bitch. So you should get to it while I'm all nostalgic."

There are countless different shades to the way she says his name. James hears them all, and his eyes close.

Even just that act, on his part, says something too. It is an act of innate trust for her, a faith that she will not capitalize on his moment of vulnerability. In that one small gesture, he expresses his trust in her. It means even more when, a moment later, he lets go of her wrist.

She could strike, in that tiny moment before his eyes open again. Could punish him for his frailty, in exactly the way he taught her to punish people for their weaknesses. Her fingers flex… and then fall still.

You always looked like a Yasha to me, she says. The familiar humor brings him to laugh, a wisp of a sound that resonates with obvious relief. He missed her little sarcasms, her jests, her quips. He missed her, over the many years he had to wander the wastelands alone. Here she is, now, and she sounds the same, smells the same, feels the same…

But at the same time, she's changed. He's changed too. Everything about him, as far as she's concerned, is different. To begin with, he tells her, he is an American

Her hand moves. His eyes move to it immediately, though he does not tense or respond in any way save to watch it approach. Patiently, he waits for her to choose, as she chose fifty-odd years ago, and when her choice brings her fingers to trace his face, his eyes close again in transparent relief.

This would usually be the point they would trade their code phrases, speak in their language of lies and ambiguities, but that time in their lives died decades ago. Now, she looks up at him and states bald truth, and his eyes — when they reopen to regard her — state a bald truth of their own.

"No need to kill you," he quips. "I didn't put all that effort into you, all those years, just to do that. It's… a long story, what you saw. Something brought… different versions of people here, from another world. People from a different dimension, where nothing went like it did here. No Apocalypse. No war. The woman you saw… she wasn't a Dark Rider, in her reality. Some of them are telepaths. There's talk of them being able to help us."

He stares off pensively into the middle distance. "I've been afraid to ask what kind of man I am, in that other world." He laughs. "Maybe I'm just dead."

After a brief silence, he shakes off the thought, his eyes refocusing on hers. "I'm not gonna make you say America was or is great," he says, mouth quirking. "I'm not that cruel. But it's worth trying to reclaim and rebuild from the sons of bitches that took it. We're doing just that. There's… I was asked to head a team. To put down Apocalypse's agents, wherever and whoever they are."

Hearing his laughter disarms her.

Things like that, bringing back memories that sting the backs of her eyes, bear so much that Natalia can barely breathe. She lived for twenty years as a ghost, one consigned to the life she could never claim in the working world.

No longer can she deny, hold back, or abstain; she needs to touch him, and hesitantly, like a wild animal remembering briefly a time it was tamed, she lets the ends of her fingers brush his face.

It is a brief, experimental touch, and when James Barnes doesn't burn her, doesn't turn to ash like another nightmare inside her fingers, the contact deepens from the mapping swath of her thumb down his cheekbone to the dance of her fingers along his jaw and to his neck. She feels his pulse for the last evidence he lives.

To that end, Natalia seeks peace before she must go. She hasn't forgotten for a moment how she suspects him, and believes her Yasha even now to be her enemy. She accepts how it must be. She is so tired, and because she loves him, she hopes it's his hands that deliver her from this world. She'd lost one cycle of monsters to the fire, and after twenty-years of feeling all what they took from her, she knows she can never go back.

She makes her request for execution a sly little tease. And the Winter Soldier?

Denies her request just as teasingly.

It's not relief that makes her breathless. Something close to it, something that hurts much more, something almost terrifying as it moves through her: hope? He speaks of something else, parallel realities or something just as unbelievable, and Natalia looks on dubiously as of all those stars and stripes did something to his head. A Danielle Moonstar from a world that never fell?

Natalia is quiet as it all sinks in. She lets go a short, rough laugh, voice thick with emotion. "So that woman comes from some other dimension. You're Captain America. And I'm to help you rebuild the country I put hard work trying to destroy for forty years."

Her blue eyes soften. Her answer: of course.

"And whatever man you are on a hundred worlds," she promises, coming through the choke of her incredulous words, some wryness, "I wouldn't let you suffer yourself alone."

His laughter disarms her. Her reaction disarms him. While she marinates in the memories his every movement and murmur dredge up, he steeps himself in the now… in the miracle that is having Natalia alive and safe and back in his arms.

She was the one thing that was real to him, in the cold of the Winter Soldier. He looked for her until the last photo he had of her crumbled to dust.

Now she maps his face with her hand, real and warm and alive, and just as she fears him disappearing before her touch, he fears she will wisp away if he should even dare to breathe too hard. He holds his breath. Inevitably her fingertips stray down to his throat, tracing his neck, and he knows what she wants — to feel his pulse, to feel that he is alive.

It is a very vulnerable place where she touches him. How to tear free a man's throat with her hands was one of the first things he taught her. But he does not pull away, or even tense.

Then she asks for death. Instead of giving it to her, he explains to her their new life. It is a hard story to swallow, but he tells it as honestly as he can, and search his face as she might, there is never any lie in his eyes. Not even when he admits, by implication, that he's Captain America.

Her reaction makes his eyes hood. "You say that like it's so unbelievable I could be," he says, and despite him being so different — another man entirely — there's still so much of Yasha in the way he speaks, the way he jokes. Enough that one must wonder if the Russians just built Yasha off the base of James Barnes to begin with. "And when you put it that way, you make it sound like I'm asking something very silly. Maybe I am. Well then, please, Natalia: save a man from suffering in the company of his own intolerable self."

He smiles at her, but his expression turns somber again as the full implications sink in. Natalia recovered. Natalia by his side again. The two of them working together. He forgot how much he missed it.

His demeanor sobered, he leans down close, touching his forehead to hers. His blue eyes meet hers, watching her from heartbeats away. "Our lives were taken from us, over and over," he tells her, his voice low. "So I say… let's be justice finally come due."

His hands cradle her head, steel on one side and flesh on the other. "Let's avenge ourselves."

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