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Brother Winter

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          A low growl rumbled through the evergreens, shivering through pine boughs and startling crows from their perch. Early fall foliage fluttered against the excited wings, casting golds and reds along the solid black of the road as the growl rose through the trees to a roar. A roar that burst from a black motorcycle racing down the otherwise empty forest track, forcing the trees to quiver around the stillness of a single shadow. A lone rider encased in black leather hugged the machine, a braid of deep fiery red flying behind like an angry phoenix. Yet even the shadow in the trees could see hands tight on the handlebars, stress etched on the rider’s pale face.

          Won’t stress much longer, the shadow mused as mossy leather gloves flicked a sliver of silver metal into two outstretched fingers, eyeing the pale skin left exposed by the rider’s missing helmet. The shadow had not expected her prey to be so careless, cocky maybe, but not careless. With a supressed smile, a shiver ran up her spine and danced along the nape of her neck beneath a rosewood braid. Pleasure was not a familiar sensation, yet nothing could compare to the split second before a target became a job done.

          Deep breath.

          Shoulders relaxed.

          Flingers light.

          Flick.

          The treacherous afternoon sun caught the silver as it darted through the air allowing the rider the spark of warning needed to tip her bike, moving the target and forcing the silver to embed itself in the leather of her shoulder. Blue eyes narrowed; another pair of slivers flew through the air but still pierced harmlessly into black leather, the ghost of a growl tumbling from the attacker before she leapt from her tree.

          The job would be done.

          Máthair accepts nothing else.

          The assassin wraps her fingers around a well-worn and lovingly maintained pair of knives as her prey crouched behind her overturned motorcycle, green eyes quickly assessing the threat yet her hands empty. The targets eyes flashed, teeth almost bared. This was the great spy? Angered so quickly? Where was the cold Widow?

          With the dull back edge of her blades resting against the inside of her wrists, the shadow launched herself over the meagre barrier of the bike and drew her blades out to cut black leather only to find empty air. The flurry of air at her left ear allowed the shadow to block a punch with forearm and blade, the stubborn black leather refusing to give to the honed blade. Frustration distracted the assassin a split second allowing the Widow’s knee to fly into her side. Widow kicked out the attacking leg, throwing the shadow to the ground. The shadow was just able to roll away before a black boot slammed into the pavement. A blade against the back of black legs was countered before it could reach the weak point of a knee but not before drawing an encouraging bead of red blood.

          As the assassin tried to get her legs fully under her, Widow’s arms wrapped around her neck spinning with enough force to slam her back onto the unforgiving road. Green wrapped hands dropped the blades and wrapped around the arms, pushing back hard enough to bring them both to the ground, pinning her prey beneath her. From the ground, Widow kicked her legs out to one side as if to flip them again, pulling focus and allowing her to jam one electrified gauntlet under her attacker’s neck.

          A hiss escaped locked teeth, but the other woman stared down at the Widow, blue eyes steady as lightning convulsed through her body.

          Fingers flinched at her side unable to rise and grab the burning wrists yet refusing to yield to the darkness gnawing at the edges of her consciousness.

          Don’t fall.

          Don’t fail.

          Máthair will accept nothing else.

          Widow’s eyes narrowed, brow furrowed as something like surprise flashing behind the electricity reflected in her eyes. She pulled back one arm across her body and brought her elbow back in full force before the women could breathe. Lights sparked behind wild eyes before the darkness finally claimed the shadow.

~*~*~*~

 

          “Blyad!” The word pushed itself from Natasha’s lips as she shoved away the assailant’s body and rose to her feet. All she had wanted was to get away for a few hours, just the wind against her face tearing away her thoughts; the silence of speed and an open road.

          Silence once again denied her.

          While the past five years had been hell for everyone, it seemed the past six months were made just for her. Five years she had held together what was left of the Avengers. Five years of trying to keep chaos and fear from running wild through society. Five years she had held out hope for her family to be resurrected and reunited.  For those who had been turned to dust by her failure to be returned to them.

          She had been willing to do whatever it took to bring them back; but even success had its failures. How could she have known she would not be allowed to rest? That the remains of her past would pull her back even from Vormir?

        Clint’s face with betrayal and pain etched deep as he realized she would not let him die still haunted her. Him hanging from the cliff, screaming at her as she let go .

        It was okay.

        She could clear her ledger.

        She could bring them back.

        She could rest.

          Yet the Red Room was not done with their little ballerina. It was the Red Room. Even in death they control you .

          Waking up frozen and gasping in the remains of an old soviet bunker had been jarring to say the least. Finding the clone duplicates of herself and so many of her sisters, ready to be retrieved and used like discarded dolls had been beyond infuriating and nauseating. She had always believed that having no place in the world meant her death would be of no consequence; the rewards of a hard life. But she was not even allowed the dignity of death. 

        Leaving the bunker and getting somewhere civilized enough to realize the unimaginable had happened, the snap had been undone, took the last of her will. Holing up in a seedy shack on the outskirts of Siberia was all she could manage. Shivering and burning as ghosts of memories danced around her trying to find the right slot in her new brain to take up residence, she was unable to believe this reality was anything more than her own personal hell. She had died. Fallen to her death by her own will to give those she loved a chance at a true life.  Yet now, everything hurt. Everything was wrong . Her mind buzzed like a swarm of bees trying to relocate into a new hive without its queen.

          For a week she had battled her mind and body while hurdling between plans of returning to the family she had fought for or simply disappearing.  There was such chaos it would not have been hard to claim a new life, to simply slip away into obscurity. Live a simple existence where she could be anyone but the Widow. Or no one at all.

          Yet she had tried that before and she always returned to the same point: you cannot escape who you are.

          Shaking herself in frustration, Natasha looked down at the young woman on the pavement and confusion returned. The woman looked to be in her late twenties and was dressed for both combat and stealth, mahogany hair pulled back into a tight French braid that ran down the back of her green leathers. Was Natasha really so spent that an attacker had almost gotten the drop on her? She could admit the attacker had been good, but if things went wrong and someone got that close to her, that was her own damn fault.

          Yet that look, the determination staring down at her as electricity surged through her muscles.

          Her Widow bites hurt; Natasha had used them to knock herself out rather than allow Pierce to control her so she should know. This would-be assassin had sat there and endured the pain rather than yield. A feat that meant the woman either had some serious will power or had faced some horrific training; or just as likely both.

          How long had she been waiting? Nested up in the trees waiting for her prey. Natasha hardly had a chance to leave the compound anymore. Between the move and trying to calm tensions post blip, none of them did much more than work and sleep; eating had long ago become optional. She had not gotten a moment alone like this in a week and she had really been looking forward to it. 

          “Well there goes that thought….” Natasha sighed as she righted her motorcycle and faced it back towards the compound. “They’re going to love this…”

 

~*~*~*~

 

          Darkness leached slowly away from the assassin’s mind as she reached desperately for her training. Keeping her eyes softly closed, breathing slow deep and consistent; no signs that that she was regaining consciousness as she tried to assess how badly she had fucked up. Last thing she remembered was staring down at Widow, electricity overcharging her system and forcing her failure.

          Now: lights bright enough to filter through her lids. Good for observation and assessment of an enemy target. Antiseptic astringent in the air to match the myriad of stings along her exposed skin. They had treated injuries. The cuts and bruises were little more than annoyances; they were likely trying to show “good will” and “humanity.” Gentle hum of recycled air. Soft mattress under her. No restraints on wrists, ankles, or neck. They were trying for kindness, to lull her into giving up her intel.

          The captive almost rolled her eyes as she finally allowed them to open. While blaming the dizziness that assaulted her upon sitting upon the blinding white walls and ceiling, she evaluated the cell masquerading as a room. At least they had been smart enough to not only take her weapons but also her gear, leaving her sitting in soft black joggers and a simple grey shirt. Not a chair, not a light fixture, not an exposed panel visible in the room. Shiny white walls blending into shiny white ceiling and a white floor, all smooth edges and hidden seams. Even the mattress of her cot melded seamlessly into the frame. She almost felt respected by their caution and skill.

 

~*~*~*~

 

          Natasha watched from the other side of the wall knowing the attacker could not see her, confident in the tech gifts Tony had left behind in this place.

          By the time Natasha had returned to upstate New York from the wasteland of death and Siberia, she had found a bombed-out shell where her home had once stood. The buildings pulverized into a heap of glass, rebar, and concrete. The grounds equal parts burned to the cinder and flooded under the expanding lake. 

          Dust.

          It had taken her another two weeks to find this place out in Stockbridge and just over the New York/Mass line; one of Tony’s finals gifts to them and his own need to be prepared for anything. Even before she had found the strength to approach this new base, she knew her family was scattered. A few had moved to this base, needing to stay close to prove to themselves that they were alive. Some, like Banner, needed to know they had really won (whatever that meant). Others, like Wanda, needed to believe they were truly back. Yet not all had chosen to stay. Thor off to the stars. Tony’s protégé Parker trying to reclaim his life as a kid from Queens. Clint could not seem to decide where he needed to be; equal parts unable to look at her or face his family after his time as Ronin...

        Focus Nat , she scolded, clenching her fist and turning her mind forcefully back to the women before her. She looked disturbingly young in the borrowed clothes and Natasha struggle to parse the stillness the attacker had embodied for the last hour with the small smirk that now playing on her lips. She had to note the other woman had woken carefully, probably assessing her situation before showing herself to be aware, leading Natasha to believe she was not only trained in combat but something deeper as well.

          “Zhdete svoyego momenta?” The shadow that fell over her shoulder was one of the few comforts Natasha had left and she had to resist leaning in. While most of the other still questioned if she was really her - hell, she still questioned if she was really her - James “Bucky” Barnes had taken it in stride. Not that it should surprise her; no one else understood the insidious nature of the Red Room quite as well as the Winter Soldier. There might also be something to be said about the fact that he had known her, even if he did not always remember, since she was one of 28 little ballerinas. “I am told she has been awake for over an hour, yet I find you still out here? Not like you to hesitate, Nataliya.”

          “Observation is not hesitation, James.” That was absolutely a tired edge to her tone and in no way defensive. “She took on my Bites and didn’t go down. She woke up tactically aware enough that I almost missed her analyzing her surroundings before she opened her eyes…” Shaking her head, she pushed on, trying to ignore a nagging feeling like she was missing something. “The new AI is analyzing her scans and blood draw, but there is something here that feels too familiar.” Even with James’ eyes on the glass before them, Natasha could feel his awareness on her and she struggled to keep her breathing steady. He knew her and that made it almost impossible to hide.

          “You have never turned away from a challenging interrogation. In fact, you love them. So, if you are going to wait her out, then come eat.” While everyone can stare, ignore her, or pretend everything was normal? No, thank you . “If not, then bring her some food so she can ignore it and we can figure out who the hell wants to kill you today.” 

          He was right. Of course, he was right.

          Jackass.

 

~*~*~*~

 

          A soft hiss heralded the opening of a door to the captive's left, almost completely hidden in the smooth wall, yet she forced herself to look uninterested with eyes casually ahead. She seemed to ignore that halfway across the wall she was watching, a small table emerged from the smooth white plane just large enough for the paper plate and small foil package the Widow carried.

          Deli sandwich on a paper plate, protein bar still in package. Peace offerings meant to humanize relations and make captive dependent on captor without providing materials for weapons. One made by hand, one still packaged as if it couldn't be drugged.

          Cute.

          “Sorry about your clothes, but we needed to supress the trackers. Promise we will clean the blood and dirt out of the leather, good as new.” Casual tone, apologize, offer assurances. Black ops small talk.  The captive wondered which wall was see-through or where the hidden camera was that allowed whoever was the Widow’s back up to watch and analyse. Not that the Widow needed back up. Even the assassin could admit she had been too overconfident … Confess … but the Widow still had a chance to live up to her legend. Máthair always preached the perfection of the Red Room, how the Soviets had created the perfect spies and assassins.

          You will follow the steps of those ballerinas, mo iníonacha. You will be Hydra’s eyes and claws.

          Yet legends can outlive their usefulness. This one had been given a chance to come back into the fold, to return to the path, reborn in might. Yet she had turned her back on Hydra once more and that was a betrayal that just couldn’t stand.

          “I don’t suppose we could just skip to the part where you tell me why I deserve to be dead and you are really doing me a mercy?” Widow's words made it hard for the assassin to keep the soft smirk from growing on her lips. Widow was used to this dance, as this was far from her first brush with a traitor’s death, but that acting annoyed and bored was not going to get her anywhere. “Chego segodnya khochet matushka Rossiya?”

          Widow had leaned back against the wall just beside the closed and hidden door, arms crossed, and eyes nearly closed as if the other woman did not feel that gaze upon her. Eyes relaxed, mouth slightly slack, she looked bored and tired. Micro expressions are near impossible to prevent but relax enough and one may hope to confuse them.

          “Hydra then, but which of the multiplying and disorganized heads are you chained to?” No surprise that Hydra was her second guess. The only person Hydra wanted more than the Widow was the Solder and the captive still was not sure he really existed. It was more likely he was a ghost story to scare little claws into obedience for if even the great Winter Solder could be made to comply there truly was no hope for mere mortals.

          The Widow pushed off the wall stealing back the assassin’s attention.

          “Nothing? Anything you want me to tell your superiors when we trace the trackers?”

          Silence

          “Don’t worry, I’ll think of something witty for you. Enjoy your dinner.”

          The assassin could not help it; this time she did roll her eyes as the Widow slipped out of the cell. They both knew round one had been a draw, nothing truly gained. Just the first steps in the dance. The players had been known from the start and even within Hydra, few knew of Scoil Naomh Ita.

          “Gearr ceann amháin…”

 

~*~*~*~

 

          “Ifreann…that was…something…” Natasha looked at James a bit concerned when she turned the corner to join him.

          “What do you mean? I didn’t get anything from her yet,” she countered. It was not all that surprising yet equally frustrating and exhausting.

          “Before the war I knew all of two languages, Brooklyn English and broken Irish thanks very much to Mrs Rogers….” Natasha leaned against the wall raising an eyebrow while trying to ignore the ache at the mention of the former captain. “As she was laying down, our guest here was spouting the usual hydra mantra of cutting off one head, but she was saying it…as Gaeilge.”

          “As...Irish? Really? That was not one of the languages the Soviets though I would need.” With eyes honestly closing and wishing she had not gotten out of bed this morning; Natasha almost missed the small smirk on her friend’s face. “Does Hydra even have a base in Ireland?”

          “YA znayu, chto treniroval tebya luchshe, chem eta Natal'ya.” A smile ghosted over her lips. What had become of her life that remembering being trained by the Winter Soldier in the Red Room was what passed for a happy memory? “Northern Ireland is a space between two governments most of the time and the Republic has massive swaths of land with only a few villages. It would be a perfect place for Hydra to fall between the cracks…Not all that different to Siberia...”

          “Ireland… I knew I needed a holiday…” The words failed to come out light and she knew James heard it as soon as the tempting weight of his hand rested on her shoulder. Just a little pressure up, just an inch closer, closer to the warmth, closer to the comfort.  How much she wanted to lean into her friend and feel just a little more like herself. Like maybe things could settle, never be quite normal, but settle.

          I have no place in this world

          “Could you possibly check with the AI about our guest scans and give it the new information about where to focus the trackers?” Push ahead, push away, regroup.

          “Still can’t talk to him, can you?” A shudder jolted her upright even as she tried to hide it with a shake of her head. “Yea I will deal with our ghostly host if you go get some actual rest.”

          “He’s not really a ghost…”

Chapter Text

          Natasha faded away in front of Bucky’s eyes before she truly left the room. He knew full well she would not get any sleep, but maybe just maybe she would sit and drink some tea or pretend to watch a movie. Pretend to still be living a life instead of simply fighting to stay afloat. Ever since she came back, since she realized the Red Room still had claws in her life and her death, she seemed to simply give up. The edge she had hardened to a vibranium edge fighting her way from the soviets had snapped into a wild apathy with the realization she could never really escape. If they were not careful, she would fall back into being one of the soulless weapons the soviets had made them.

          Trying to shake the thought from his head, Bucky turned back to their guest and gave what little assistance Natasha would accept.

          “Hey Tony?”

          “Yes Red Rover?” the familiar voice fell around him with its classic caustic charisma and Bucky could not help but wonder what the hell Stark had been thinking to put his friends through this.

          When they had first found this base, they had been beyond grateful; no one had wanted to think of returning to upstate New York after the final battle with Thanos. They had very nearly lost everything and the price had still been too high. Yet Tony’s anxiety and protective nature had forced him to make contingency after contingency and it seemed a secondary base for the Avengers had been within his limit.

          It took less than a day for them to find the ghost.

          So used to JARVIS and then FRIDAY, Sam had called out a question to the air only to be horrified to have Tony’s voice answer. While those assembled in the common room stood frozen, some armed and some about to fall over, the AI had gone on to explain that Tony knew his friends could get on without him but they didn’t have to live without his “wit, charm, and immense genius.” Was that not just like the younger Stark? Even in death, he wanted to be part of the team.

          “Any news on our guest?” At least this Tony didn’t seem to want Bucky dead.

          “Scans show mostly normal human, a pair of small trackers embedded in her spine because with Hydra, why not? I have those suppressed in the building just to be safe, don’t want any of her squid-worshiping friends to come to play.” No wonder most of the team…what was left of the team… refused to interact with this AI. They could get away with simple requests that did not require a verbal response such as turning on lights or music. Yet it seemed even then the Tony AI had a playful side and wanted to interact with his friends.

          “Thanks, have you found a way to backtrace the trackers in her leathers without tipping them off where we are?”

          “Will be easier now that you have narrowed it down to the land of Eire.” Was that really a Tony AI attempting a really bad Irish accent? “There is still a chance of them tracking it back but come on, it's me v Hydra. I think I can handle it.”

          “Bozhe moy, dazhe v etoy forme u vas yest' ego razmerom s planetu,” Bucky whispered shaking his head.

          “Size of a building, thank you. And I can finally understand your not-so-super-secret spy languages. Her blood work is taking an extra minute, something strange is there but I can’t quite pin it down yet. I’ll keep working at it…” Well, isn’t that fun. A Tony Stark he can not hide from, who understands Russian, and is really really dead.

          “You do that, ghost man, but text me.” The last thing he needed was to talk anyone down from another guilt-ridden panic attack.

 

~*~*~*~

 

          Walking through the doors of what should be the training room, Bucky pinched the bridge of his nose as if the simple gesture could keep his growing headache at bay. The room was spectacular: polished wood floors gleamed through gaps between blue matted training areas, one wall dominated by an adaptable climbing wall and the façade of a city building, both disappearing into the tall ceilings. An elevated running track hugging close to the walls about halfway up the three-story space high above enough equipment to keep even this band of adrenaline junkies happy.

          Yet most of the area lay barren, anything that was not bolted down piled up against one wall as a tall blonde man fretted around the chaos in a way that was completely at odds with his large muscled form. Oh, most would think he looked commanding and in charge, strategically ordering the space into effective organizations, but over a century of observation let Bucky see it for what it was. Blonde hair mussed from rough fingers traipsing through it, muscles straining against his white tee even as he considered the equipment before him, eyes never seeming to settle on a single item.

          Steve Grant Rogers had never been one for helplessness or idle time; whether bedridden and half-dead from pneumonia or between death-defying missions in a seemingly endless battle. It was almost as if he saw idleness as surrender, as backing down. As giving into the bully ghosts he did not have the strength to fight just yet or the anxiety that he would only create more. 

          "It’ll be alright, Buck.”   

          A flash of light, the whirl and hum of impossible machinery, Bruce’s steady count down, and his world disappeared.

          5 seconds. It was only 5 seconds.

          “Returning in 5…4…3…2…1…”

          Nothing

          Breath froze in his lungs,

          “Where is he?” Hands clenched so tight he could hear bones cracking.

          "I don’t know” Ice licking against skin, tears burning

          "He should be here,” Don’t do this…Please…

          The crash and heat open his sealed eyes, the platform smoking and sparking with wicked glee but Buck couldn’t see it. Kneeling in the center, helmet missing, suit torn, and struggling to catch his breath was his miracle.

          Bucky gave himself a harsh shake, dark hair falling before his eyes, trying to shield himself from the memory. Later Steve would tell him about running into trouble on Vormir. About the sudden appearance of the Red Skull and trying to kill a phantom. He would explain how attacking an incorporeal guardian of an infinity stone may qualify as taking the stupid with him. Yet in that moment, with the smoke still clearing and Steve hardly getting his feet under him, Bucky had nearly collapsed as grief and fear rushed out of him.

          “I…thought you’d left….”

          "Buck…I just got you back…I’m not going anywhere.”

          Pulling his hair a little too roughly out of his face, Bucky forced his attention on the man in front of him as if to remember why he was here. If he did not give Steve something to focus on, they would lose him as thoroughly as if he had left. Steve had been fading away. No, he was pulling himself away from everyone around him. Building up walls with bleeding guilt and festering doubts; still taking the ills of the world on those broad shoulders.

          Gathering his courage in a way he never had to do with a gun in his hands Bucky finally called out.

          “Cé chomh dona is atá do chuid Gaeilge?” The blonde’s shock nearly caused him to drop the heavy bag he was carrying. The spark of life and curiosity behind his blue eyes almost broke Bucky’s heart but it was truly as if Steve would not let himself feel anything remotely warm. Mechanically, he had turned back to rearranging the equipment for the fifth time, the spark fading but not disappearing entirely.

          “All the languages you know flawlessly yet you can’t hide your Brooklyn accent in your Irish…” Was that almost a smile in his disbelieving voice? Bucky would stumble through any language to hear that color in his voice.

          “Toisc gur fhoghlaim mé an Ghaeilge le himirt leat…” Steve truly froze now, eyes not leaving the equipment, but that ghost of a smile was enough. The blush that warmed his cheeks was so rare nowadays Bucky had to reach out and bush his fingers against the man’s warmth as if trying to capture it. The Irish must have been distracting enough for Steve to forget he had been keeping everyone at arm’s length because he actually leaned into the touch. The stubble felt like silk under Bucky’s callused fingers and would have made him sing if he was not worried about startling Steve away again.

          Without allowing another moment’s hesitation, Bucky wrapped his free arm around Steve’s waist and rested their foreheads together. Even as Steve’s breath caught, Bucky could see the flicker of uncertainty in his eyes warning him Steve was thinking too much. “Irish has always been for you Mo Chroí.”

          Unable to hold back, Bucky pressed his lips firmly against Steve’s. It had been far too long, and he was not about to waste the chance. If Steve caught his breath, if he schooled his thoughts, he would push away again. Bucky had lost too much to not fight for this.

        They had enjoyed a week of respite after Steve had almost blown up the timeline getting back. A week of just being grateful they were both alive and whole. A week of relieved laughter and stolen kisses, of nothing days curled up against the world with a sketchbook and the sun.

          A week before the guilt had started gnawing at Steve’s heart.

          It was not that guilt was a new sensation for either of them. Bucky would forever hold guilt from his time as Hydra’s Fist: a time of blood, ice, and screams. Yet Steve’s guilt had always held a single point of focus, what he saw as a failure to protect Bucky. Everything from the pain of leaving Peggy behind to the strain that caused his falling out with Stark had all focused on this one point of guilt. A throbbing injury but with an easy ex-soviet assassin- shaped balm nearby. Now Steve’s big heart seemed to be trying to hold on to guilt for each and every sacrifice made to repair what Thanos had inflicted on the universe.

          Steve finally pulled back to gasp for air, that precious blush still rich on his cheeks and looking a bit too delicate for a man who could lift a Harley single-handed. Hope whispered that maybe Steve would share some of his pain, share some of the weight and stop being so goddamn stubborn as Bucky continued to hold him close.

          A hope that refused to die as Steve's eyes fell away. 

~*~*~*~

 

          The warm firm arms around Steve were melting away the sheer force of will that had been keeping him going the last few months. The constant battle raging in his mind was beyond exhausting. Who was he to still be standing when so many good people had fallen around him? How was he any more worthy then Vision or Tony or Nat? Yet how could he push away from the gift he had been given? A gift Wanda or Pepper would give anything to have for themselves? He wanted nothing more than to simply give in and enjoy the victory they had won, but it felt dishonest to all those they had lost. Felt disloyal to the friends who would never come home and those who would never be the same again.

          Even just letting the warmth of the man he loved envelop him seemed more than he deserved but he was too damn weak to walk away.

          “So, what’s with this renewed loved for Eire?” Steve had not heard Irish since his mother’s deathbed. Sarah Rogers had cut against the grain of new immigrants to New York and had demanded her son learn the language of her mothers. As long as her country was occupied, she would spread its culture away from those who dominated her homeland. Even with the warmth of his mother’s memory, Steve could hear Bucky’s trepidation.

          “Natasha was attacked leaving the compound.” Was she alright? Could she even be hurt anymore? Steve tensed, hating himself just a bit more. When they had lost Natasha, when Clint had been forced to watch her fall, Steve thought he would do anything to get his friend back. She had stood by him as his first friend after thawing, one of the few to really see him. She had continued to stand with him through the fall of SHIELD, after the Accords, and five years of failure and shattered hopes post-snap. Yet when Natasha had shown up at their new compound so soon after finding the twisted gift of an AI Tony, it had been too much to accept another ghost.

          “She brought the attacker back to find out what we can, and the attacker has only said one thing since…” Bucky actually hesitated until Steve met his storm grey eyes. “…Gearr ceann amháin...”

          “…Fásfaidh beirt.” Steve froze and dropped away from Bucky in shock, the words ash in his mouth. “There is something particularly twisted about Hydra’s perverse battle cry in my Mother’s tongue….”

          “Can’t argue with you there, pal.” Steve could not help but notice the way Bucky crossed his arms over his chest as if trying to hold on to that moment of warmth. He knew he kept hurting Bucky by pulling away, yet he could not help but feel cursed. His track record was pretty good evidence that anyone he tried to keep close ended up suffering. Even still, he was too weak to fully push Buck away. “She was well trained and was waiting in the trees along the road out towards the Pike. If it had been a bit less sunny, Nat wouldn’t have seen the knife flying at her until it was too late.”

          Interstate 90, or the Mass Pike as it was called on this end, traversed the northern edge of the country from Boston to Washington state. At over 3000 miles with countless turn-offs and branches, it was a great route to use as an escape and disappear. Yet if Natasha had wanted to get away from them, she would not have brought her attacker back to the compound. Nat was more than capable of taking care of one lone threat on her own.

          Bowing his head Steve realized, not for the first time, how much he hated his own uncertainty. It was not that he did not trust Natasha. It was that with everything he could not quite trust that this was Natasha. Yet it would be so much worse if he lost even this small piece of his friend.

          “Is she alright?” Did his voice really sound that hesitant? He knew it had taken him too long to ask.

          “A few cuts and bruises, but nothing she can’t handle.” With Bucky’s response, Steve found himself grateful for the wave of relief that washed over him. Maybe he was not completely lost to those around him. Steve squared his shoulders and took a deep breath before he turned back to Bucky, trying desperately to cling to the grain of resolve.

          “So what’s the plan?” Can I help? Will she let me help? Steve pushed those questions down, trying to look steadier than he felt.

          “Letting her eat and stew while we wait on blood work. He says there is something he can’t quite pin down there.” Steve failed to suppress a shiver at the mention of the AI but pushed forward. He should have known Bucky would not let him get away with unspoken questions.

          “Can I help?” He knew the answer before he met Bucky’s eyes, but he refused to withdraw the offer, refused to back down.

          “You will have to ask Nat.”

Chapter Text

          On a clear enough night, with the stars dancing around the moon in their immortal waltz, a person can be almost anywhere. No matter what hellhole of sand and snow or sunny paradise Natasha ended up in, the stars were always the same milky white shimmering on the velvet sky.

          Even close up, strapped into a borrowed spaceship shooting towards her death and filled with an abundance of undeserved faith and hope, she had still felt at home surrounded by the same stars that had watched her whole life.

          Yet Vormir had not even allowed her that comfort. The clouds had thickened as she and Clint climbed the rocky edifice, shrouding her before she knew she was dead. As if her sacrifice would have been lessened if the clouds had parted for just a moment and allowed her to see anything besides Clint’s broken heart etched plainly on such a familiar face.

          A sacrifice she was not even allowed to keep.

          The crunch of the gravel roof on rubber soles snapped Natasha back to the present, her hand already on the hilt of the knife in her boot before she could bite back a muted curse. Not long ago she would have felt safe enough here, among her family and friends, not to flinch at the smallest sound. She would have known that those around her would guard her back and trust her to do the same. Back then, her relaxed posture,  legs pulled up to her chest and back against the HVAC jutting out of the roof, would have been genuine and not a mockery of comfort. She would have been at home among the stars and her people.

          I have no place in this world

          “Finish rearranging the gym?” Natasha quipped without turning, forcing her posture to relax before he could see her. Of course, she knew those steps; they may be less sure than they once had been, but even uncertainty could not mask the stubbornness that was Steve Rogers. She wanted to joke, wanted to tease in the familiar pattern without it feeling to stilted and forced. Yet she could not blame him when he never quite managed to look at her.

          “Nah, Buck kicked me out.” Ah, so James had told him what had happened. This was not so much her friend coming to make sure she was alright as much as the commander checking on his troops. Rogers may have given up the shield to Sam, saying he could not imagine stepping back on the battlefield after losing so much, but leadership was written in his bones. “Are you alright?”

          “What ever do you mean?” Steve’s eyes finally finding her face even in the dark proved how badly her casual tone had failed. “Not the first person to want me dead… Wouldn’t even be the first time I’ve died.” Doubling down on the gallows humor and delivering the smirk required looking back towards Rogers just in time to see him flinch. Even with all the distrust and uncertainty lately, causing him pain tore something deep inside her.

          “Nat…” Failing once again to look nonchalant, she turned her eyes back towards the stars peaking above the darkened trees. Dying had been easier than dealing with her friends’ pity. “Look, I know I have not been there…”

          “No one has been here, Rogers,” The words came out harsher than she meant, anger lending strength where guilt leached it away. “We are all still picking up the pieces.”

          “Yea, well... we’ve always done that better together…” She could almost see the ghost fluttering before his eyes. Tony with his feet barely back on planet earth, accusing Steve of not being there to beat Thanos. As if it was Steve’s fault the team had fractured and scattered to the winds and not the unavoidable trajectory of so many egos trying to do the right thing. “We’ve lost enough, Nat…”

          Exhaustion almost allowed her enough of an excuse to simply give. It would be so easy to pretend that they could all be a team again, a family again.

          “I’m not even really here, Rogers.” Push back… push away…

          I have no place in this world

          “You’re still doing better than Tony.”

          “I heard that!” The phantom voice bubbling up from the sensors in the roof held way too much indignant pride for an AI. Pain built deep in her gut threatening to freeze and burn in the same breath. A volcano of ice bubbled up into her chest with such force she finally cracked.

          Steve stepped back the moment the cackling laugh snapped out of her, the force bending her forward over her bent knees. Her tears burned their way down her cheeks, rolling off the leather pants and melding with the dust from the afternoon’s fight. Ice wrapped around her chest, freezing the air in her lungs and making it hard to breathe around the shards of laughter. Everything they had lost, everything they had restored, everything that was irreparably damaged all threatened to jump from her restored leger to take their due.

          Warmth and solid arms engulfed her, thawing but not burning, surrounding but not trapping. She knew should be panicked, but what was there left to fear? Her mind told her to run, but she had nowhere else to go. Even if there was anywhere left to hide, her will was a burned-out husk.

          As she allowed the warmth to claim her, she surrendered to its strength and felt her hair dampened from the other’s tears.

 

~*~*~*~

 

          Confess.

          “Máthair, I have failed.”

          Pain ripped through her back as she held tight to her own legs. Iníonacha accept their punishment as a gift without support, excuse, or complaint.

          Confess.

          “I let myself be seen.”

          The pain carved its path from the base of her skull steady and true through her skin, her own fingernails penetrating the skin around her ankles.

          Confess.

          “My aim failed.”

          Blood trickling down her back and did nothing to cool the fire of another trench carved into her flesh.

          Confess.

          “I allowed my target to live.”

          Whip, blade, cane slashed across the fresh wounds, tearing at the edges and etching failure into her bones.

          Confess.

          “I allowed myself to be captured.”

          Claws rending the flesh from her back. Yet as agony and shame melded into her skin, screams died in her throat and body refused to retreat.

          Confess…

          The assassin’s eyes jerked open with almost the same force that threw her upright. Her lungs struggling to remember how to function. As her fists unclenched at her side, they came away warm and wet, skin cemented under her nails from the new crescent-shaped wounds in her sides. 

          If she was careless enough to fall asleep in enemy hands, then she deserved the pain. It would be so much worse when she returned to Máthair.

          Closing her eyes and ignoring the blood, she sat at the edge of her bed and tried to settle her breathing.

          “Is lann mé i lámha na Máthair”

          Confess

          “Is claw amháin mé” 

          Confess

          “Níl rud ar bith agam” 

          Confess

          “Gearr ceann amháin Fásfaidh beirt” 

 

~*~*~*~

 

          Realization clicked behind stormy eyes that suddenly felt every one of his 100 plus years. Bucky had returned to observe Natasha’s attacker simply to keep from worrying about the two idiots circling each other on the roof. He knew they would have to work things out eventually. They both needed this team too much to walk away; even if they were both too stubborn to realize it. That did not mean he could resist the urge to smash their heads together if he had to keep an eye on them.

          At first, the operative’s sleep talking seemed like a serious tactical flaw for any kind of intelligence or shadow work. If an opponent only had to wait for you to fall asleep for you to spill your secrets, they would just point you towards a comfortable bed with a cookie and warm milk. Softer, cuddlier interrogations

          Yet, as he turned up the volume up on the surveillance equipment in her cell, as the words started to flow, ice shards cut through his veins. Even with the carefully cultivated blend of accents that detached the woman from any one country, the flat tone pounded through his ears and against his skull. The reporting of failures. The less than subtle recoil with each admission that did not bring relief or awareness.

          Mission report

          Ready to comply

          The Solder could feel the programming echoing deep in his bones and scars.

          Life had been so much easier when Hydra was just a bunch of fanatical fascists who volunteered to follow the squid-worshiping Nazi skeleton. Ranks of soldiers who volunteered to take a bullet from the allies because of their own greed or twisted beliefs outweighed logic or simple survival instinct. When Hydra had learned to take away people’s will, to turn a person’s mind against itself, the world had gotten even more grey and fucked up.

          The keyboard groaned in protest as he punched off the audio feed so he did not have to suffer her program reinforcing mantra and he forced his focus to the scans Tony had been able to run. Malnutrition was no surprise, evidence of old broken bones long since healed not any less shocking. Yet the hairline fractures to her legs they had discovered soon after she had been brought in were already fused and that was a little off-putting. Linked with the fact that the woman seemed to have no cuts or abrasions (beyond the recently self-inflicted) less than a day after taking on the Widow, Bucky suspected why the computerized genius had been struggling with the blood work.

          “Hey Tony, you have blood samples from me, Steve, and Nat right?”

          “Right-o, Daddy-o,” Bucky would never admit that AI Tony’s aggravating tone melted some of the chill from his bones.

          “Please never say that again… Compare our guest's blood to all three samples. I have a feeling you will find what you are missing.”

          “No promises on either account.” With a shake of his head, Bucky left the room and covered the distance to the common room’s kitchen with practiced efficiency. Just as he was pulling out a protein bar, knowing full well food would taste like frostbite for the foreseeable future, the sound of the opening elevator pulled his attention. The bleary-eyed pair of Natasha and Steve looked worn and wary as they entered the kitchen just in time for Tony to pop back into existence.

          “You were right, my Bionic Brainiac!” How could an AI sound so smugly excited?

          “Anyone in particular…?” As he may have done in life, Tony refused to let him finish the sentence and ran right ahead.

          “Our guest’s sample almost matches our own Femme Fatale, though no one could truly match our Widow.” A smile flickered onto his lips as Natasha actually rolled her eyes at the AI.

          “What is he on about now?” She threw a water bottle at Steve before cradling her own with her hip pressed against the counter.  The Soldier still stalking at the edge of his mind wanted to simply lay out the facts of their opponent, clear and battle-ready. Yet Bucky knew the minefield of memories and secrets this might push them all into. Natasha would never admit to being vulnerable, not even to herself, but Bucky knew her reserves were well and truly tapped out. Frankly, he did not know how many more hits she could take.

          “It seems our guest has healed up already, not a scratch on her. The hairline fractures in her legs from jumping out of the damn tree onto pavement have also healed…in less than five hours.”

          “So she is enhanced…”  How had that become a blasé statement in their lives? Steve looked as if he had just stated the sky was blue. The man had been the first scientifically enhanced human being, the first in an arms race that had claimed so many. Another guilt he refused to drop from his shoulders even if Steve knew he could not stop the evolution now. “Inhuman? Centipede? Mutant?”

          “Serum.” Bucky turned to Nat and ignored Steve blanching as this all etched even closer to home. Yet Steve, for once, was not the person Bucky needed to protect from themselves today. “It is strikingly similar to what I gave you back in 1956…” Steve had stopped fidgeting with the water bottle, but Natasha’s cold eyes saw no one but the Soldier. 

          Unfeeling cold, a dying man, a frightened but determined young agent. A simple mission. A simple bribe for loyalty. Tears streaming down her cheeks as she took the vials from his outstretched hand.

 

~*~*~*~

 

          Smoking husks of buildings, gun powder and blood. Ivan bleeding out on a pile of snow-covered wood beams. The shadow of a soldier standing before her, a man who echoed in a memory too fragile to hold. He offered her a chance to save Ivan, to save herself, in a small yellow needle.

          “Nat?” The confusion in Steve’s voice brought her eyes back into focus, the same Soldier standing before her. “1956?” Refusing to take a breath or turn to the Captain, Natasha plastered a carefully playful mask to her pale face.

          “So you aren’t the only ones who look good for their age…” The smirk and swagger that flirted in her voice failed to reach her eyes as yet another secret was stripped away. Another piece of her past exposed to the world. No, not the world, just Steve. Pushing ahead so he stayed too unbalanced to ask more, too unbalanced to dig at that particular wound, she turned back to the problem at hand. “So Hydra developed yet a new serum. Not fun, but hardly unheard of….”

          Watching the Winter Soldier hesitate was almost more nerve-racking because James was her friend and no longer Hydra’s Fist. Something like regret seems to drift across his face before he turned and picked up his tablet. With as quickly as he reviled the secret she had been hiding from the world, SHEILD, and her team, what could make him hesitate now?

          The feed that was pulled into the air before them flickered before focusing on the woman who had attacked her. First glace confirmed what James had already told them, the woman’s skin lacked cuts, bruises, or burns. She was laying back against the cot with her face blank and arms tight at her side but looked far from relaxed.

          “Máthair, I have failed.” Moving closer against her will, Natasha felt the words pierce her like talons.

          “My aim failed.” Failure will not be tolerated. A girl still soft with youth pinned to the floor, struggling for air as Natasha waited for the command to end it.

          Quick snap of the neck. It was over.

          You are made of marble.

          You never fail.

          “Is she talking in her sleep?” Steve seemed perplexed yet Natasha could not help but notice his eyes were on her stiff shoulders and not the video. He would see when someone was lost in a memory, he had years of experience at Bucky’s side, so she tried to accept his attention as kindness. Even if she wanted to hide.

          “She is reporting.” The words fell flat and mechanical from her dry lips as she pushed the video through the air until it disappeared. “We cannot hide our failings if they program us to state them on command. A failsafe in case one is less than honest with their handlers.” Even as she tried to hide behind a cruel smirk, she greeted the ghosts that would keep her up that night.

          Somehow, watching Steve’s pale skin transmute into red raging fury warmed her just enough to keep going. Sure, she knew the gritted jaw and clenched fists were for Bucky and what the Soviets then Hydra had done to program the Soldier. Yet maybe, just maybe, some of that disgust and indignation was for a little Russian girl who just wanted to dance.

          The easiest way to infuriate the Captain was to remind him of the special brand of sadism that was mental modification.

          “So, this just became a rescue?” Oh, the righteous mounting fury that was Steve Grant Rogers was a spectacle to behold; Captain America could not hold a flame to it. It was that simple for him. Hydra had twisted this woman against herself enough to require a failsafe for compliance and obedience. Therefore, she was a victim of Hydra and in need of rescue. Period and end of story.

          A small but genuine smile crested her lips and she risked a look back at Bucky who looked equally amused. After everything, after aliens and Hydra, after their own government and team coming after them, after dust and blood, justice was still the core of this man. It was hard not to love him for it.

          “You know… she did try to kill me, Rogers,” She could not help it. It felt too good to poke, it felt too normal. Steve just raised one of the eyebrows-of-disappointment and crossed his arms over his chest.

          “Bucky tried to kill me, you tried to kill Clint, Clint tried to kill you…. twice. At this point, death threats are just how we introduce ourselves.” Bucky actually snorted over Natasha’s shoulder and something eased deep in her chest.

Chapter Text

          Yesterday those women had been children. Yesterday they had been learning to clean a firearm and now they are trained snipers. Yesterday they had been learning how to spot a tail and today they are on assignment. Losing time was not unusual for one of Máthair’s claws (repetitive training, missions where the days run together, confessions and redemption) but this was something else…

          Sweat rolled down the assassin’s neck and shoulders, dancing over pale freckles before pooling on the floor below her. There was no reason to count how many sit-ups she had done; the point was to keep moving.

          “Your target is a traitor. You will do us a great service removing her.”

          Shoulders quivered.

          “Pain is weakness.”

          Abdominals burned.

          “Failure will not be tolerated.”

          Neck strained.

          “You are nothing.”

          Ignoring the hiss of the door was harder than ignoring the signs of weakness in her own body even as red hair came into her vision and stayed almost respectfully distant as it moved towards the wall with the small, untouched table. The smell of warm rich black tea almost stunted her movements as Widow placed the paper cup on the table, but relentless restraint pushed her through another minute of crunches before folding up to hold her knees.

          Something had shifted in her opponent’s stance since the night before. She still looked in control despite darkening circles under her eyes; a certainty in her movements belayed the stress etched just under her skin. Yet she looked honestly more relaxed, almost amused, than she had earlier that day.

          “I am told the Irish drink more tea than the British, so I figured that would be a safe bet.” Widow leaned against the edge of the closed door again, ankles crossed before her and arms resting against her leg. The assassin did not move even as the slightly sweet earthiness of the tea enveloped the room with a welcoming splendour. She simply rested her arms against burning legs, ignoring the invisible knife edges that had found their way into her straining muscles. Widow watched with one delicately raised eyebrow a moment more before moving on.

          “You should know, when we reactivated your trackers, they received some kind of failsafe code…” The captive gaze narrowed even as disbelief warred with her turning gut. If Máthair had blown her trackers, her failure had been noted and she was abandoned… There was no confession or punishment for a failed mission, simply excommunication and a kill order… No redemption… Simply a short flight with a certain fate, to be hunted by your own until honour was restored…

          Yet the Widow knew Hydra, knew that failure was not an option. It should have been an expected lie from a knowledgeable opponent. The assassin hid her guilt at the momentary lapse of judgment behind a mask of boredom, ignoring how the world spun around her.

          “Just to point something out,” The Widow pushed on, either buying the mask or ignoring it, “If there was ever a place they couldn’t get to you it would be here.” The words were so casually said yet yearning burned hot and fast catching the assassin’s breath. A breath that quickly turned to ash as shame and anger burned colder.

          “I got to you here.” Leaden words fell from her lips as her eyes fell away from the Widow and back to the floor. There was no hiding from Hydra. Their eyes could find you anywhere and where the eyes could see, the claws could reach.

          “Nope, you jumped me in the road because you could not afford to get any closer.” The Widow was not wrong, it would have been foolish to attack any closer and risk alerting other opponents. Reports had said this was a highly reinforced and armed complex with an advanced intelligence defensive system. Waiting just outside the perimeter for three days had been a deliberate choice.

          Phantom pain slithered down her spine, cold as steel, reminding her of her place in the world. A vice closed around her chest as if her heart would stop at even the notion of such treacherous thoughts. She would complete her mission one way or another; failure was not an option. 

          “Is lann mé i lámha na Máthair.” The captive placed her hands on her legs, reopened eyes boring into the Widow. “Is claw amháin mé. Níl rud ar bith agam.” The Widow shrugged and turned away, eyes following her every step.  “Gearr ceann amháin Fásfaidh beirt.”

 

~*~*~*~

 

          Fifteen hours had passed since her initial failure.

          Four hours since the Widow had left.

          If the captive waited too much longer, the darkness outside would fade.

          Retreat, regroup, reengage.

          It had been Widow who had so kindly marked the seam for the door; her need to stay near an exit caused her to rest in the same spot each time she had interrogated her captive. The paper plate had been left with its disregarded sandwich because it was seemingly harmless. However folded carefully it had been just enough to allow her to drive her fingers into the space between door and wall. Blood oozing from her nail beds and cracked nails greased the way, allowed her to press her fingers in deep enough to pry the door from its lock.

          The door wheezed open in protest; the cool air that caressed her clammy flesh emboldened her.

          She would not fail. She would escape and reappear to complete her mission. She would return to Máthair and accept her punishment with pride. When her blood had cooled, and the wounds had closed they would no longer question her loyalty, for the Widow would be dead.  A jolt ran up her spine, powering her limbs and steeling her resolve as she turned away from the cell.

          Before she could take a full step, before she could pull fresh air into her lungs, before her eyes could fully process what they saw, terror slapped her face and froze the blood on her skin. The pounding of her own heart filled her ears as her eyes focused on the shadow blocking the way to the base beyond. The sickly light reflected severely off steely eyes and metal fingers not quite hidden in ebony sweater. Her faithless legs took an involuntary step backwards as anger flashed in those grey eyes, a curtain of hair not hiding the promise of fire and pain. The grace and confidence engraved in his every step forward the perfect antithesis to her fumbling retreat until groping hands found the wall pressed to her back and her cot to her side.

          “Sleep.” The growl of command was punctuated with the door slamming closed between them before she crumbled against the strength of the cot; clammy fingers clutched her chest.

          He’s here. Air scrapped out of her lungs as her eyes struggled to focus. The Winter Soldier. Hydra’s Fist.

          Sleep

          The mattress felt solid against her back, allowing her to ground her quivering shoulders into stability.

          Sleep

          Darkness obediently claimed her, but grey eyes continued to burn through her skull.

 

~*~*~*~

 

          “Coffee.” The Winter Soldier might be able to clear a room with nothing but a knife and a glare, but nothing on earth was more terrifying than Bucky before his morning coffee. Hair plastered against his pillow creased cheek, gray eyes still not fully open as he shambled into the common kitchen in a rumpled black sweater and red lounge pants; this man could be one of the living dead.

          Yet the sight brought a true smile to Steve’s face as he handed over an especially large mug. Over the past few months, the need to do, to fix, to build had stolen these moments from them. Never a stranger to rising before dawn, Steve had been pushing right from early morning runs to rearranging gear to planning missions for the rest of the team to any other excuse he could lay his hands on to just keep going. Keep doing. Keep busy. He had been pushing so hard he had pushed right past the reason he had fought in the first place. He was so grateful today’s goal required waiting for Bucky and Natasha to crawl out of bed.

          “Did you get any sleep?” Steve had strategically waited to ask until half the mug had been emptied and was still greeted with sullen bloodshot eyes.

          “Four… in the fucking morning.” Bucky finished the mug and seemed to honestly consider pulling a Clint with the whole pot before pouring another mug. “Crawled my ass into bed at two and then she tries to break out at four in the goddamn morning.”

          Steve did not laugh, he seriously did not laugh, he just smirked loudly enough to earn him another glare.

          “Correct me if I am wrong,” God he had missed this, “but I imagine trying to escape at a time convenient for your captor would not be Hydra 101.” The resulting snarl really made Steve want to wrap his arms around the other man and laugh into his shoulder. Survival instinct and years of experience told him all he would get would be a punch to the side with a weaponized metal fist.

          “You didn’t even budge! I know Tony texted us both, but you still don’t wake unless it’s a fucking alien invasion!” Second mug down. Third mug just resting on the counter. Murderous rage diminished to a brooding scowl. Steve took his cue and finally stepped forward and pulled Bucky against his chest. An ache filled him at the surprise such a simple act had seemed caused in the other man. An ache that only eased with the familiar weight of Bucky leaning in his arms. “Fuck you and your heavy sleeping…” There was no heat left in the shoulder muffled words.

          Steve laced his fingers through long dark hair, carefully combing through sleep tangles and rubbing gently against Bucky’s scalp. A soft sigh tickled against his neck and Steve’s eyes fell closed, his cheek against Bucky’s hair. He wanted to apologize. Wanted to make up for the last few months. Wanted to tell Bucky he was the reason Steve had fought so hard to gather the stones and bring everyone back.

          “Punk.” Bucky knew, he always knew. Bucky knew Steve better then Steve knew himself.

          “Jerk,” Steve threw back with a squeeze.

          “Oh good, mom and dad aren’t fighting anymore.” The crunch of an apple brought the focus back to the redhead sitting cross-legged in a baggy sweatshirt and yoga pants on the breakfast bar. Even with dark circles under her slightly uncertain eyes, she was sitting there teasing them while eating her breakfast. Buck turned to glare at her and reach for his coffee.

          “I thought you were mom…” he grumbled, bringing the mug to his lips and leaning back into Steve again.

          “Fine… papa and dad aren’t fighting anymore.” One delicate eyebrow rose as if to challenge them to argue with her. Mischievousness sparked a smirk on Steve’s lips as he turned to kiss Bucky’s cheek, his hand moving behind him until his fingers brushed the sponge at the edge of the sink. Without looking he threw the wet square at Nat’s shoulder, laughing as she caught it and grimaced at the water now dripping on to her lap. Bucky just grumbled and finished his third cup.

          “I noticed you didn’t get up at four either,” he spat at Natasha while reluctantly handing her a fresh mug. She had the courage to shrug before taking a sip.

          “I knew you’d get up, no use us both being awake.” As if she had gotten any sleep. “Besides, she needed to see someone other than me.” Steve snorted and pushed Bucky’s refilled mug into his hands before he could strangle Nat.

          “Yea, I am sure a sleep-deprived Winter Soldier at four in the morning is just the thing to breed confidence…”

 

~*~*~*~

 

           A shaky hand rubbed against sleep dry eyes as the captive blinked awake, trying to grasp at the fringes of consciousness. The white ceiling reminded her where she was but brought a deeper confusion. If she was still confined in enemy hands, how had she slept so deeply? How had she slept without a confession? She pulled her knees to her chest just as panic staggered her.

           The Winter Soldier.

           She had tried to escape; eyes found the blood smeared on the side of the door confirming the memory. She had opened the door only to find the burning grey eyes of the Winter fucking Soldier. Confusion warred with panic, how the hell was she still in one piece?

           Sleep

           The echo of a command forced a breath from her lungs as she clung to consciousness. Grey eyes bearing into her and commanding her into obedience. The world wobbled around her forcing her to lean over the bed with her head between her knees.

           “If you eat the food we give you, then you will be a lot less dizzy.” Cold panic pushed away the dizziness but did nothing for the nausea as the captive forced herself to sit up and stare at those same grey eyes across the room. The black sweater had been replaced with a long sleeve navy shirt that looked like it had been made for warmth and comfort. With his hair pulled back and denim-clad legs he could almost pass for casual; but those eyes gave him away long before the metal arm peeking out of his sleeve.

          An exasperated look and a quick point of a metal hand brought her attention to the plate lying next to her bed and a fresh paper cup of tea.

          How had he gotten that close to her while she slept?  A harsh swallow forced air to move through her lungs again as she obediently picked up the warm cup. She failed to fight her eyes fluttering closed as the smell of earth and sugar floated from the cup, bundling her in warmth. At least if she died today it would be after a decent cup of tea. Three stolen sips later she was able to extract herself and place the cup back on the table, eyes returning to the threat in the room. Was that amusement or aggravation behind his eyes? If her drink had been poisoned, either was possible, but she was pretty sure a toxic death was better than trying to challenge the Soldier.

          “I am glad one of us got some sleep. I’d ask you not to try to escape at four in the morning again, but I’ve been told that’s highly unrealistic.” Somewhere in the back of her mind she knew he was trying to humanize himself to get what he needed from her, yet she could not see the Soldier gathering intelligence. He was a claw; Widow was the eye. “You should eat. I don’t know the last time Steve made a breakfast fry, but I wouldn’t let it get cold.”

          As if on command, the captive’s eyes focused on the plate that had accompanied her tea. A paper plate crowded with a fried egg, sausage, baked beans, and fried mushrooms while dark brown bread glistening with butter rested on a napkin next to plastic utensils. Battling between defiance and panic, she snagged a piece of the bread and dipped it in the yoke before taking a quick bite. The runny yolk dripped down her throat and her stomach roared for more.

          Nutrition bars had sustained her while waiting for the Widow to make an appearance in the forest, but they only kept her functional. She re-dipped the bread in the yolk…

          Need is weakness.

          Plates of steaming food on long tables. Girls with hands clasped in their laps. Lightning running up all their spines if anyone touched their plate.

          The captive dropped the bread onto the plate causing an undignified splatter of egg as she shrank back.

          “They use food as control.” The Soldier looked as if something had been confirmed for him, the fire back in his grey eyes. “They don’t tell ya that they are keeping you weak and dependent on them.”

          “Weakness is not tolerated.” The words an automatic defence against the accusation. His smirk looked tired and worn as he leaned forward, resting his forearms against his legs.

          “Oh no, that’s the great lie of Hydra. Weakness of the body won’t be tolerated, sure. But they need you weak of mind, dependent on them and unable to think. How else could they control such dangerous assets?”

          “Is lann mé i lámha na Máthar. Is claw amháin mé…” He did not allow her to correct her world.

          “Is é sin mo phointe,” Shock rocked through her as she fully stared at the man before her. One of the great pains of the Irish was how occupation had almost wiped out language and culture. Sure, there was a resurgence and children learned Irish in schools nowadays, but the number of those who were fluent was still dangerously small.

          “Your accent is shit.” The deflection was not subtle, but the resulting laugh was even less so. The Winter Soldier was laughing at her in poor Irish while she drank a decent cuppa. What the hell was in that tea?

          “Well, I was still a Brooklyn boy, not the mindless Fist of Hydra, when I learned Irish so it’s a bit less than perfect.” The captive picked up the bread simply for something to do with her unsteady hands. Still a Brooklyn boy, the idea that the Winter Soldier had been anything other than a weapon of Hydra…

          “We are nothing without Hydra.” Her matter-of-fact response cooled his laughter in a heartbeat.

          “No, they are nothing without us.” The conviction and fire in his words caused her to shiver and push back against the wall but she held her ground.

          “Cut off one head and two more shall grow.” The words felt like glass pouring out of her mouth while returning some resolve to her spine. Hydra was eternal, to be part of their strength was to be immortal. A retort sat in his eyes a moment before he shook it away and stood, ignoring her flinch.

          “One of us will be back with dinner. Eat, clean up, talk to Tony about watching a movie….” The confusion on her face sparked a brief smile as he headed towards the door. “Say hi, Tony.” As the disembodied voice filled her cell, the Soldier was gone.

 

~*~*~*~

 

          “Yebat' Gidru …” Despite all the languages Hydra had stuffed into his head, there simply weren’t enough ways to curse them as they deserved; even if he did his level best for another solid minute as he walked down the hall. He had never been on this side of deprogramming, of watching someone try to decide to live instead of giving in to captivity. It just made him realize again how lucky he had been that Steve had found him; and that he was the most stubborn pain in the ass punk in history.

          Wishing for a nap and half lost in memory, he had almost missed the shadow before a fist connected full force with his side.

          “You called Clint?!” Quickly twisting away from Natasha’s second volley, Bucky wondered if he would get a chance to catch up on sleep without calling Shuri about a cryo-nap. “Chto, chert voz'mi, dal tebe pravo …” He grabbed her wrist and forced her against the wall just hard enough to surprise her.

          “What gave me the right?” Protective fury raged and burned the edge of fatigue. “You were attacked. We have a brainwashed assassin in a cell. And none of us are at peak performance. Yeah, I called back up.” Pushing away from her, he continued down the hall in desperate need to caffeinate. “I am not going to help you hide, Nat.”

          “You don’t think he has enough to deal with right now?” Anger echoed in her steps, but his eyes truly could not roll hard enough as he poured them both more coffee.

          “And letting him stew in that new place in Bed-Stuy is supposed to be healing?” Nothing against Brooklyn but locking himself away was not going to do shit. Besides, as much as Nat loved Clint, this was not about Clint’s wellbeing.

          “He’s got Lucky.” Buck just leaned against the bar and watched her over his mug; he was so not jumping in and saving her from this line of thought. “And he is training Katie…” Keep going Nat, you’ve obviously been keeping an eye on him. “He doesn’t go home…says he can’t after his time dressing like a ninja…. still refusing to wear his ears…”

          “Well, he was attacked and is pissed about it. Think we all know that feeling.” He watched her push her mug around on the counter.

          “He can’t look at me, James…” It came out as a sigh but still held a sharp pain.

          “He watched you fall off a cliff and couldn’t save you, ask Steve how much that hurts…” Leaning forward, he covered her hand with his own before pressing on. “We need him Nat… and not just for our Irish Rose.” Her eyes closed but she didn’t argue; it would be so much easier if she argued with him. “You don’t have to see him. Just…try not to avoid him too blatantly…”

          “When am I anything but subtle?” The smirk did not reach her eyes but at least she was trying.

          “Five minutes ago…when you really tried to slam me into a wall?” There was a weak spark in her green eyes.

          “Who told you I called Clint anyway?” She raised her eyebrow and said nothing with a patented Widow guise.

          “Really? You’ll talk to Katie-Kate but not…. never mind…” He downed the last of his coffee and stalked away. If he was going to have to be the emotionally stable one around here, he was getting a goddamn nap

Chapter Text

          Between Tony’s own special brand of paranoia and multiple attacks on his properties, the genius had designed a base that was pretty impossible to sneak up on; even if one was a former SHIELD agent, assassin, thief, and circus freak…

          Of course, he should not be trying to sneak onto base. The Avengers were still licking their wounds and were liable to overreact when faced with an intruder…

          Not that he was an intruder, he supposedly had quarters here just as he had in the last two Avengers bases…

          Clint Barton dropped his head onto the steering wheel of the car he had parked just before the defensive perimeter with enough force he rattled the vehicle from windows to tires.  A set of purple hearing aids jumped and danced on the dashboard as if taunting him; which only caused him to hit his head again.

          He was well aware of the tactical flaw in being unable to hear the world around him while being locked in the caustic carnival of his brain. Yet it was easier than hanging giant signs on the sides of his head that said he was damaged and easy to attack or dealing with flashbacks to the last time he had his hearing stolen from him.

          Angry at the thought, Clint snatched up the hearing aids and slammed them into his ears with almost as much force as he slammed the car into gear.

          After hesitating in the driveway…

          …and the underground garage…

          …and at the elevator up to the base…

          Clint finally made his way to the common room and beelined to the coffee pot just for a sense of normality. Aw, coffee, yes, the pot was fresh and looked like it was full just for him. The steady footsteps coming down the hall made him instantly and immensely grateful for the golden retriever poking around the breakfast bar; with Lucky by his side people may actually smile and ignore him. Lucky waited only a moment more before pouncing on the other blonde walking through the door. Front paws gently but demandingly landed on Steve’s arms, tail wagging his whole body, and thoroughly sniffing the man in greeting.

          “Hey there, Pizza Dog.” Clint’s shoulders relaxed unexpectedly at the genuine smile in Steve’s voice even as the archer could not quite bring himself to turn toward the pair. “And hey there, Pizza Guy, Bucky said he had called you up out of Brooklyn.” With the soft click of Lucky’s paws being returned to the ground, Clint forced himself to lift the coffee pot in greeting. He plastered his most genuine fake smile on his lips before taking a long drag from the pot to fortify himself.

          “Hey Cap.” They both flinched. “Steve,” Clint quickly corrected before hiding behind his pot again. “I needed to give Lucky a walk anyway, so what’s up?” Steve scratched Lucky behind the ears before he was abandoned for scents unknown around the room, leaving the former captain looking disturbingly lost. Clint stared a moment wondering just how bad it had been around here since he had been distracting himself with the tracksuit mafia.

          “Basically, there is a new member of the brainwashed assassins club that we’d like to promote to the former brainwashed assassins club.” Clint choked, unable to feel too betrayed by the coffee through the pain of Natasha’s voice in the doorway.

          Air slapping cheeks and a moment of weightlessness as his feet left the ground.

        A moment of peace.

          Hands grabbing his shoulders. The sudden yank and stop of momentum. The pull of her body against the rope stubbornly attached to his belt.

          “It’s okay…”

          The galloping of his heart drowned out the vision, a cooling sheen of sweat bringing him painfully aware of the world around him and how tightly he was holding the handle of the now empty coffee pot. He felt Nat take a step back into the shadow of the hallway before he could get his breathing under control, but he did not know how to fix this. With the ring of the coffee pot almost dropping onto the counter, Clint forced himself to look towards the doorframe. She would know his eyes were looking right past her but he hoped, maybe, for once, his effort would almost be enough.

          “We really need elections for club president…” The joke was weak, his laugh was weak, his legs were weak; but she had not left.

          “Nah, I still have seniority.” Barnes brushed passed Natasha, pushing her a little farther into the room and narrowed his sleep-deprived eyes on the empty coffee pot. Grateful for an excuse to turn away, Clint threw his hands up in surrender, quickly starting another pot. Even with a second pot prepared and off to the side as reinforcements, the first was dripping too slowly to be a reasonable cover to ignore the rest of the room.

          “So how did the new nominee to the world’s shittiest club drop into our lap?” The question came out offhanded but as Bucky recounted what they learned so far and Natasha stayed Black Widow quiet, Clint struggled to stay focused. Even with Lucky pawing his leg, the archer found himself staring into the depths of the warm red fire flowing over Natasha’s shoulder. She was here, she was standing right here safe and whole and alive. Yet he could not get himself to look into those eyes…

          Green eyes filled with calm and acceptance trying to hide the spark of fear…

          “Clint.” The bump of Steve’s shoulder quickly brought him back from the cliff edge and back to the brightly lit communal kitchen. Back to Barnes’ carefully neutral face, Cap’s horribly hidden concern, and his own chest pain. “We need to figure our next steps…”

          “Pizza!” Clint knew his voice was too loud and enthusiastic, but he had to release the pressure in his chest. The shock his volume had caused on three faces quickly morphed into frustration and amusement. Pushing off the edge of the counter and in no way running away Clint tried to clarify. “I am going to go order pizza.”

 

~*~*~*~

 

          Wire tense

          Back muscles tighten and lock

          Slow breathing

          Exhale

          Relax hand

          Time can seem to stand still as an arrow soars through the world. The comforting combination between the simplicity of weapon and complexity of skill giving just a moment to breathe …focus…control

          Tense and relax

          Hit

          Tense and relax

          Hit

          Tense and relax                                                                                      

          Clint jumped back at the burst of light and splinters of carbon fibre as the arrow exploded halfway down the range. With a shake of his head and a less than silent curse, Clint vowed to actually label his arrows this time; explosive arrows were absolutely categorically banned in the range. Again. Making sure the knock was what Katie Kate would call a “long and pointy” arrow, he resettled his stance and took a breath.

          Tense

          Relax

          Splinters

          Clint narrowed his eyes but reached back to his quiver. Without his ears, he was reliant on his peripheral vision to find the hint of what he knew was there, but Hawkeye did see better at a distance.

          Tense

          Pivot/Relax

          The arrow released up and off to the right of the range where he was rewarded with a flash of metal before smoke started billowing through the nest and Clint wished he could hear the curses now spewing from his fellow sniper. In order to not miss the whole show, the archer made his way back to the workbench that stretched the back wall of the range and clicked on his ears just in time.

          “…that smell never comes out,” Barnes grumbled as he settled his rifle on the bench.

          “Try vinegar… and not shooting at my arrows…” Clint retorted as he traded his bow for his mug.

          “Oh, come on, Barton. I need the challenge.” That kind of mournful look should not be plastered on the face of an ex-soviet ghost assassin.

          “If you want low stress moving targets you could come visit Ben-Stuy and help me annoy the track-suit Draculas.” The look of perplexed concern from Barnes actually allowed Clint to smile. “Vaguely Eastern European mob trying to steal my building while refusing to wear anything but matching track-suits or say anything more intelligent than ‘Bro.’” Barnes blinked at him a few beats before just shaking his head.

          “What the hell are you doing to my Brooklyn, Barton?” The archer shrugged as he turned to unstring his bow and check his arrows. He might be the kind of person to find protein bars buried under dirty laundry in his kitchen, but you had to respect your gear. The two snipers worked in companionable silence a few calming minutes before Barton broke the spell.

          “You did not leave Steve alone with his rigorous brooding just to destroy my arrows.” Clint’s bluntness was born out of respect for Barnes far more than wariness over the conversation to come.

          “No, but we do need to try that again. We could both use the sport.” A flash of professional curiosity streaked through him; some (Nat) would call it a macho pissing contest but the idea of trying to outmaneuver Barnes was always way too tempting. But no matter what others might say, Clint had the patience of a sniper and could wait when he wanted to. “Your advice for dealing with a brainwashed and conditioned Hydra assassin skilled enough to hit Nat… is dinner?” Clint smirked and stowed his own gear before sitting up on the workbench.

          “I believe my advice was pizza. Pizza makes everything better. And since I hear she is one of those savage tea drinkers who won’t be converted to the true caffeinated gospel…Pizza is what I’ve got.” The look of friendly exasperation that had been focused on him almost morphed into full-fledged annoyance.

          “Clint, you can’t pull off dumb blonde so why try?”

          “Mostly for attention. But no, the food is an excuse. It’s a way to get her out with people who will treat her like a human instead of a weapon.” With not enough thought or hesitation he added, “How often did The Soldier get a family meal?”

          The darkness that settled over Barnes’ suddenly expressionless face caught even Hawkeye’s breath. Barton may have been an assassin and sniper with some pride in his skill but, compared to the Winter Soldier, he might as well be a bad camp archery instructor. No one with a shred of survival instinct could look at the Soldier unaffected. But this was not The Soldier; this was Barnes his sniper brother. Unclenching his fists, Clint forced himself back from the battle’s edge.

          “Barnes.” When those cold eyes focused on his own, Clint pressed ahead gently but resolutely. “That’s why we bring out pizza, and Lucky, and the members of the world’s shittiest club. We can’t ask her to trust us unless we trust her.”

          “Trust?” It looked as if Barnes was physically pushing back through the Soldier as he spoke; strong-arming memories and shadows away from his vision.

          “Trust,” Clint confirmed with a lopsided grin. “Steve trusted you. Trusted you enough to stand up the King of Wakanda, 117 countries, and Tony….” They both flinched but the darkness had faded.

          “And you trusted Nat when you brought her in.”

          “I still trust Nat.” The ferocity of the words surprised him and left him feeling raw. “But yea, pizza, movie nights, still showing up every day when she wouldn’t talk to me or would outright attack…” He had shown up every time and somewhere along the way, she had woken to a life after Hydra. Not just the gun-for-hire existence, but a true life with friends and favorite foods and that cranky cat of hers.

          A life he had failed to protect.

          “She still needs you to show up.” Barnes was back but even his gentle words could cut.

          “Already failed her in that… I‘ve lost that trust and don’t deserve to get it back.” With a dejected certainty, Clint grabbed his empty coffee and escaped before Barnes could offer the pain of hope.

 

~*~*~*~

 

          Trust. Clint suggested a show of trust to make the assassin feel more human and able to accept that they were not Hydra. Accept there are people in the world who see can see a person, not a weapon. Bucky knew it had a chance to work; it had worked on him and it had worked for Nat. Yet the idea of walking an opponent through their base, even a limited amount of their base, seemed tactically suicidal.

          Which was probably why Steve had jumped right on with the plan and Bucky was once again in the position of making it work.

          The same why that had Bucky throwing Steve over a fence when the punk had tried to steal back Becca’s doll from the O’Neill twins. The same why that had him chasing Steve and Hydra across Europe while his own veins were burning with Zola’s first serum. The same why that had him fighting for every memory and ounce of sanity he had left from the moment they hit the Potomac.

          The why that had him opening a brainwashed assassin’s door to invite her to dinner.

          Bucky faltered a moment as the door opened and he caught a breath of a whimper from the other side of the room. Primed and ready to wake her from Hydra’s sadistic conditioning, it took him more than a moment to decipher the scene on the other side of the door. The woman who had the gall to attack one of the Avengers was struggling to look spiteful as an undeniable blush rose in her cheeks, a movie paused on the screen before her as she sat cross-legged on the end of her cot. A smile actually tugged on his lips as he recognized Westley lying in bed and bluffing his way into scaring the shit out of Prince Humperdinck.

          “Tony picked this one?” The defensive spite in her eyes was warring with her protective fear of the Winter Soldier. Bucky would feel offended if it did not match his own unease about causing instant fear while unrepentantly using it to keep a threat contained around his team. “Did you want to finish this or stretch your legs?” Distrust took the place of spite and fear, but she was trained well enough to not forgo an opportunity. With a cock of his head, Bucky stepped out of the room leaving her an invitation to follow.

          Even with his eyes forward he could see her fingers twitching while her eyes scanned her surroundings. He knew she saw the exits, cover, sightlines, makeshift weapons and targets. He also knew what she could not see, no restraints, no orders, the uncomfortable lack of real weapons in the room or on their persons. Trust.

Chapter Text

          The captive followed a step behind and to the right of the Soldier as they passed through a wide-open room trying to stay where he would be weakest. Not that the Soldier had a weakness. While she knew it would be suicide to take on the Solider, the amount of exits out of this space gave her hope of escape. The wall of windows beyond the sunken sitting area looking out over the golden autumn wold beyond and granting her first glimpse of the outside world in days, offered the best chance of escape but there were also exits through a large kitchen behind it, down hallways to her right.

          Retreat, regroup, follow through. She could still complete her mission…

          A flash of dusty gold streaked into sight, her only warning before 23 kilograms of strength burst straight for her with a single-minded purpose. Heart rate elevated, left arm up to defend her face, right down to guard her torso, one leg back for balance, dodge to the right as claws and soft paw miss neck and shoulders…

          With a huff of frustration, the dog plopped down on his hunches and looked up at her expectantly. One brown eye shining, pink tongue lazing against his teeth, simply waiting for his due.

          The captive looked up just enough to catch the Soldier smirking at her, eyebrow raised in an invitation. His own posture was open and relaxed even if she thought it would fool absolutely no one. Ignoring the invitation, she stepped past the dog into the room and her fingers scarcely brushing his warm, soft, enticing fur.

          Exits mapped, she turned her attention to the other threats in the room with a casual grace. Her eyes fell quickly on the large All-American man sitting carefully on the couch as if he was actually reading the book occupying his hands. Muscles straining along his shoulders and back in a parody relaxed posture. His broad chest carefully controlling his breathing. Observant blue eyes not even scanning the page in front of him. In a direct fight he would be a challenge, but stealth or tracking would not be his strong suit; he could not even decide if he should glance up at the newcomers or continue pretending to read his book.

          Sprawled out on an armchair between the couch and the bank of windows was an even taller man drooling into a throw pillow while cradling a half-empty coffee pot as if it was the world’s most precious teddy bear. His visible skin was peppered with cuts and plasters, purple plastic hugging his ears, and mouth hanging open like the dog who still eyed her. She could not understand this man’s role besides comic relief. Sure, he was large and obviously athletic, may even be able to hold his own in a fight long enough to receive a few more injuries, but who sleeps in a room with three assassins?

          It was the last person in the room that made her fingertips itch for a blade. Casually leaning against the breakfast bar in the kitchen, eyes watching her over a steaming mug, was the Widow. Dark denim and a soft black hoodie did not deny the skill and strength coiled in her lean form. Her blasé posture seemed genuine, yet the captive knew better than to underestimate the Widow a second time. Amusement danced in those green eyes, a small smirk forming as she lowered her mug, obviously waiting for the captive to finish her assessment of the situation.

          “Kettle’s on, you want tea?” Widow’s enquiry was an almost blatant invitation to enter the kitchen, where there would be no one between her and the Widow, plenty of weapons, a clear exit...

          Even as the thought bloomed, it wilted and turned to ash.

          The attack was expected.

          Chances of success were slim.

          Her own termination all but assured.

          The realization shook her as reality pressed in on her shoulders: that was the game. Feint, bait, bluff and mock. Give her openings too large to ignore knowing there was no chance for success. A game hiding the pretext for her execution. The eventuality thundered through her and settled heavy in her chest.

          I am nothing…

          When the assassin’s eyes refocused, the Widow had moved to the sitting area and motioned to a fresh mug before placing it on the table. The offhanded nature of the gesture, the ease at which the woman walked away, settling herself on the far end of the couch, sparked hot white fury in the pit of the assassin’s stomach. It took a full breath for her to realize the fire was from being treated like a non-threat, a nonentity.

          I am a blade in the hands of the Mother.

          Blades could be sheathed, and she could bide her time. If this was to be her last mission, then so be it. She would finish it.

          “Pizza!” The drooling blonde bounced out of his chair with such force it blew the captive back a step from the other side of the room, shattering her thoughts as she stared. A moment ago, he had been almost comatose and now he was practically waltzing to the just opening elevator. A snicker over her shoulder added to the fanciful and disorienting scene because the Soldier actually looked indulgently exasperated. Catching her eye, he shook his head and raised his metallic left hand towards the chairs and couches, not bothering to hide his smirk.

          Unable to process what had just happened, the captive found herself falling onto the soft if oversized coach directly next the man who had given up pretending to read. A mountain of pizza boxes was lovingly placed upon the table just beyond the steaming mug of rich, sweet tea the Widow had offered. It was almost grounding when the Soldier placed himself in an armchair to her left; like a deadly anchor to the world. 

          “Clint, you can make out with your pizza or the coffee pot, not both.” The man beside her did not have to look up from his plate with the obscene noises coming from the blonde on the other side of the room.

          “Can’t stop love, Rogers,” Widow quipped to the appreciation of Clint, the man somehow balancing a pot of coffee on his leg, eating a piece of pizza, and feeding another to the dog. Truly entranced, the captive did not realize a piece of pizza had been placed in her hands until it was half gone. Her brain was clinging to the names and filing them away, a small voice saying they should sound familiar, but she could not comprehend how the dog seemed to be eating with more dignity than the human.

          “No one wants to stop love, Nat, just don’t need to hear the squeaking mattress,” Rogers retorted, looking back up at the tellie while eating his own pizza as if this was an old and familiar pattern.  He turned his head slightly before speaking again. “I heard you were in the middle of a movie when dinner came, what were you watching?” It took the captive a full beat before she realized he was watching her way while trying very carefully to look harmless and friendly. The obviously feigned casual nature shook the disorientation to the edges of her mind as she tried to cling to the scattered bits of her training.

          “It was the end of The Princess Bride,” the Soldier chimed in before her wits totally settled, saving her from deciding just how cooperative she was going to feign. “Westley was explaining ‘to the pain’.” Clint sat up straighter, almost knocking over his beloved coffee pot, eyes shining even brighter.

          “The first thing you lose will be your feet below the ankle…” Clint intoned in his best gravelly voice, an effect completely ruined by the pizza sauce on his purple t-shirt. “Tony, would you please?”

          “As you wish,” the disembodied voice responded as the scene she had left off on appeared on the screen before them. The floundering tactical part of her brain realized the observer, Tony, was still watching and controlled more of the building then she thought possible. She kept her eyes on her tea as she scouted the cameras in her periphery, only spotting two in the corners while suspecting there must be more.  The film only had 10 minutes left but she would be hard-pressed to explain what happened, her mind still trying to process the strange mix of ease and tension woven around these opponents.

          Somehow, she had eaten a few pieces of pizza and finished the tea while trying to grasp the entirety of her predicament. A man, who honestly may have switched brains with the golden retriever lounging at his feet, sat a few spaces away from one of the original Black Widows who looked downright snug curled up in her black hoodie. On either side of the captive was the nightmare ghost story Winter Soldier and a man who could have been the Soldier’s polar opposite. Except the Soldier was smirking and may have been the one placing food in front of her and Rogers seemed trying a bit too hard to seem innocuous, triggering warning signals in her mind.

          A part of her brain knew she should be able to place all of the Widow’s associates, dossiers of adversaries she may have encountered during her mission. Yet she came up with a disturbing blank and was simply too bewildered to explore that blank.  

          A half hour later, before she could truly understand what was happening, the door to her cell hissed shut and returned her to the relative safety of solitude. Solitude allowing her to collapse onto her cot without hesitation. Yet even as her brain struggled to catalogue the interactions and her eyes fluttered closed, she realized she had not been compelled to utter a single word.

 

~*~*~*~

 

          Three days.

          Three fucking days.

          Three days of stolen moments. Of sitting around the coffee table filled with food. Of trying not to laugh at Steve’s almost violently friendly nonchalance. Of Bucky rolling his eyes every time he was sure their charge isn’t watching. Of Clint doing his best impression of Lucky if Lucky had no brain cells.

          And of them all scattering like startled cats as soon as the doors to containment closed.

          They were like actors in a play when the curtain closed; only instead of pulling an audience’s heartstrings, they were bruising their own. Natasha could almost handle the game; it was an undercover operation playing an old cover. She could slip into that other person. Speak that person’s language. Tease as that person would joke. Laugh when that person would be happy. Sit with that person’s friends and almost enjoy it.

          Almost feel it.

          Almost.

          When the doors closed and the team dissolved around her, the cover was ripped away and she was reminded that this was not hers anymore.

          So on the fourth day, with the table piled with massive burgers, fries and onion rings, her choices may have been less than tactical. Making sure there were a few knives in the silverware and napkin bundle she dropped in the center of the table would have been blatant if not for the superhuman size of the burgers on the table. They were built for the super soldiers among them, not the spies trained to keep their mouths shut and she was just being polite. Then it would have been unkind of her to point out when their guest had dropped her napkin and silverware at the explosive climax of whatever movie they were watching. The woman had seemed genuinely surprised and quickly returned her napkin to the table with an almost frantic flare.

          Natasha’s breath caught as grey eyes found hers over the head of their already settled guest. Her fist clenched against the couch cushion, guilt and shame fighting fury in her chest at the knowing look.

          If James wanted to say something, fine. They both knew he could disarm the woman without the others realizing. He could point it out to Steve with the former captain’s ability to show disappointment until almost anyone gave in. Hell, he could even find a way to tell Clint who would make an infuriating joke out of it all.

          Yet he just sat there irritatingly calm and maddeningly knowing before turning back to the movie.

          It took her the rest of the meal, pretending to be that other person with the other person’s friends and the other person’s cares, for the knot in her chest to lessen. For the pain of knowing they would all run away again to sink its claws into her brain again. This had to stop. James caught her eye again, not in accusation but in question. He knew, of course he knew, and he still was not going to stand in her way. It was almost enough to make her reconsider. Almost.

          By the time she was uncurling from the couch, Widow had regained her cool composure with efficient grace and strode towards the door. She paused just past the table a moment, but their guest understood her time was up. Surprise darted behind the guest’s eyes, but she followed her new escort for the first time. Given the long lounge pants, socks and t-shirt the woman had been given and where she had been sitting on the couch, Widow knew the knife had to be in the woman’s sock or waistband. She wished they had given the assassin long sleeve shirts or even her leathers just for a challenge.

          From a step ahead, Widow could see the woman’s fingers twitching and almost feel her eyes’ animalistic scanning for an opening. An invigorating chill ran up Widow’s spine, electrifying her limbs. The doors to the containment hall closed behind them, ostensibly isolating them from the others and Widow felt her whole body relax. A warm certainty melting away the pain and confusion of dealing with her family. An enemy she knew how to handle deep in her bones; revitalizing purpose and simplifying her world. 

          The kick to the gut came when the door to the woman’s room opened without incident. The assassin simply stopped at the door a moment, fingers still twitching before walking past Widow at an almost respectful distance and sitting down on the cot; seeming to make a choice. Natasha froze and suppressed a growl. This would-be assassin had not taken her chance.

          How dare the woman start this and not try to end it?

          The certainty started to crack, but she plastered a teasing smile on her face.

          “Any requests for tomorrow’s meal?” Widow’s voice scratched out of her throat as she leaned in the doorway unable to let go of this chance. “Can probably find some fish and chips around here somewhere…” she continued stubbornly through the women’s silence. The woman just sat there on the cot. Her eyes dead empty and staring at the wall, refusing to turn towards the target. Refusing the opening. Refusing the dance. Refusing the release. Natasha closed her eyes and turned her back to the woman, waiting a full thirty seconds in a final desperate provocation, please…before slamming the door shut. 

          Shame crashed into Natasha’s chest almost as quickly as the fist crashed into her shoulder.

          “What the fuck were you thinking?!” Nat blinked up at the familiar face that had haunted her of late a full minute before she realized it was painted with rage and not anguish. “Nat, answer me goddamnit. Even Steve saw her lift that knife, and he has the survival instincts of a fucking lemming!”

          Blindly reaching out for the shattering edges of protective rage but unable to look away from blue eyes that finally met her own, she lashed out.

          “Thinking? I was thinking what’s the point?  I was thinking that I can’t fucking think! I was thinking that after everything, we still lost!” His flicker of pain did not stop her advance, bitter indignation cutting her as she clung to it. “I was thinking it was easier jumping off the yeblya cliff than having my friends not be able to look at me!”

          The frenzy blew her rage to dust, the shame and guilt snapping her back a step and stealing her breath. One numb hand pressed against her face as if she could push air into her lungs, the other groping blindly for the wall behind her, trying and failing to keep herself steady. The floor was falling out from under her, finally taking her under.

 

~*~*~*~

 

          "Tell my family I love them.”

          “Tell them yourself.”

          She was diving past him. Falling away. He couldn’t stop it.

          Clint drove forward, grabbing Natasha around the waist before her legs gave out and pulled her tight against him. She was still here. Tremors ran through her shoulders as he snaked an arm under them. He had caught her. A fist pounded against his chest, faltering despite its strength. Words tumbled out over his shoulder as he slid his hand up her back to hold her shaking head, but they held no meaning, no heat.

          It did not matter. This time he had caught her.

          Clint clung to Natasha as her body shook and tears soaked his shoulder. His cheek pressed against her hair, eyes closed as her familiar warm scent filled his nose.  His own fingers pressed against her to keep from shaking. Maybe if he held tight enough, kept her close enough, he could keep her safe this time.

          It took him longer then he would ever admit to realize she had fallen silent, her hand weakly wrapped in his sodden shirt. Yet he could not bring himself to pull away, to fail her again. He let her take his place on Vormir. He had let her fall and watched her keep falling for six months all alone.

          “Nat…” The whisper of her name finally brought her guarded and beaten eyes up to meet his. Suddenly he could see that all the time the others had been trying to recover had left her in the dark. “Nat…I know I fucked up…. but we…I… already lost you once…” With a shake of her head, she pushed out of his arms. Backing away she clenched her fists at her sides in forced stillness. 

          “I wasn’t lost, Clint.” Natasha’s words rang like thunder on a clear night. “I died. I should be dead.” Before he could even open his mouth to protest, she was on him, a hand clamped tight over his lips and eyes burning. “It had been my choice. I should be dead. The Red Room took even that from me.” The fire quivered in her eyes, breath gasping again as she retreated back to the wall.

          “Well maybe the fuckers finally did something right.” The snap of his words brought her up short, eyes locked on his again. “Yea, it was your choice. Your choice to throw yourself off the fucking cliff. To leave me hanging there and watching you fall. Unable to reach you. I Couldn’t … couldn’t get to you after… to bring you home….”

          Blood pooling on hard jagged rock around her mangled body

          “So as much as I hate those child-abusing amoral sadistic twisted bastards, they have done exactly one thing right in this world. The one thing I couldn’t. They brought you the fuck home!”

          As soon as he turned away, he knew he was a coward, but running away was a pattern long etched in broken bones and harsh words. Long legs did not stop until he well within the tree line, rough bark cutting into his back, hiding behind a wall of pine needles. Somewhere along the way he had dropped his ears and picked up a bow that now lay useless across his lap, yet he could almost hear the sound of slamming his head back against the tree trunk.

Chapter Text

          Confess.

          “Máthair I have failed.”

          Hot blood dripped through steady fingers as a blade carved through firm flesh. 

          Confess.

          “I missed a chance to complete my mission.”

          Pain blossomed and flourished in red hot bursts in the darkness of closed eyes.

          Confess.

          “I….”

          A mantellic clatter echoed as the captive slid across the floor, crashed against the back wall of her cell at a bone-rattling speed. Wild blue eyes darted around the room as air refused to enter her seizing lungs. Shaking blood-soaked hands braced her against the wall as her heart fought to escape the cage of her ribs and the room slowly pulsed into focus.

          A dull butter knife shone in a pool of glistening blood that spread against the hard floor, a trail slinking from the puddle up her pale leg. A series of jagged shreds of flesh halfway between her knee and groin oozed fresh blood through her gripping fingers. Her eyes backtracked over the path of congealing blood and fell on the power that had knocked her across the room.

          “Two in the morning is really NOT any better…” The Soldier growled as he kicked the knife back through the door. He grabbed a small kit hanging off the outer wall and stormed back in. “I am all for being inconvenient to the enemy. But I have to tell you. That’s. Not. Me.” He slammed the kit on the floor beside her hard enough for it to open on its own.

          The captive turned her face away as the sound of ripping paper and unspooling gauze filled the room. Wounds that required mending required punishment. If one is feeble enough to need care, they deserve the rough treatment that must follow. Weakness will not be tolerated. Failure will be punished.

          The utter lack of sound or pain forced her to reluctantly turn back. The Winter Soldier sat crouched before her unnaturally still, gauze resting against his pyjama clad leg, an alcohol swab in his hand; just…waiting. She looked down at his hands wondering if he was offering her the tools, but they were resting fully in his control. These cuts would not cause her any permanent damage if left alone, but why get out the supplies and hold them out of reach? Was he mocking her injury? Ridiculing her weakness?

          “So, can I clean this up so we can both get back to sleep?” He downright growled yet something told her the anger was not for her. “Or do you want to keep bleeding on my floor?” Alright, some of the annoyance was for her. Her eyes narrowed a moment more, but she nodded as curiosity took over. Her eyes so focused on him, trying to find his motive written on that cold face, she almost missed the brush of gauze on her wound as he wiped away the blood.

          “Why?” Her voice felt like gravel pushing out of her throat, but she could not hide her confusion.

          “They never really ask when they touch us. Even repairing their damage.” He touched the back of her knee lightly and she lifted her leg at the request. “I refused to be them, so I ask.”

The gauze hugged her leg firmly even as his touch was distressingly careful not to cause her pain. Why was he bothering to mend them at all? Even if these cuts only caused pain, it would be easier to keep an enemy weak.

          “You are not my enemy, but you prevent me from my target.” The words slipped out as she tried to understand and she quickly pushed forward to cover her confusion. “Why is the Winter Soldier protecting a traitor?” The captive refused to flinch as his hand on her leg tightened enough to bruise as anger flashed through his eyes.

          “You cannot be a traitor to your slavers.” The calm voice alarmed her more than his growling. This was the Soldier she had always expected, quiet, cold-eyed, and lethal. If he decided he was through playing whatever game this was, she knew she had no chance of survival. He was the greatest weapon Hydra ever held; a ghost story too deadly to be true. He pulled his hand away suddenly with what could have been regret for anyone but the Soldier.

          “Hydra stole us from the world. They twisted us against ourselves and bent us until they are all that is left. To leave that isn’t treason, it’s survival,” he explained. She opened her mouth to argue, but he closed the medkit and pushed through, “Or does programming you to do this really look like they are loyal to you?”

          The captive’s eyes fell to the mess on the floor as if it had just materialised out of thin air. Her body remembered pulling that knife through her flesh, with quite a bit of strength to rip the skin with such a dull blade. Yet her brain could not comprehend why.

          Confess

          The shudder that ran through her pulled at the bandage, fresh blood marring the ivory bandage, and dragged a sigh from his throat. He suddenly looked less torn from bed through somehow a lot more tired…almost gentle. 

          “It is not going to stop until you make it stop, and you will find a way even without a blade.” He seemed to hesitate as memories danced in his eyes. After a breath he just stood and continued, “If you keep it out and visible in the room, I’ll get you a blade that cuts clean.” Blue eyes snapped up to him expecting some cruel joke, but he looked sadly serious.

          “Cén fáth?”

          “Because I remember.” When her confusion did not clear, he put the kit back on the other side of the wall; only now did she realize the door had been open the whole time. “This doesn’t end until you want it to. I am just trying to prevent worse injury before we get there.” He dropped a towel over the mess but clearly had decided he was done for this early hour. He waited for her to pull herself back onto her cot before he headed towards the door, stopping just a moment more.

          “I’ve come to terms with the Soldier; we are who we are even if we had little choice in the making. But most of the time I am just Bucky, or Barnes.” Her eyes fixed on his profile and she swallowed hard, unable to miss the gift in his words.

          “Ciara.” She ripped the name from her lips, so unused to its use that it fell like a whisper. The nod he gave looked worn even if the smile was sincere.

          “Get some rest, Ciara.” Telling herself her obedience came from sheer fatigue, she fell back against the cot facing the wall. “And try to let me sleep in one of these nights, huh?” As the door hissed closed, she choked on a stunted laugh even as her eyes watered.

 

~*~*~*~

 

          Clint’s eyes snapped open, midmorning sun dazing him enough he nearly fell from his perch.  His lungs were raging a silent war with his heart on which would burst from his ribs first, knuckles white on an already knocked bow. He had no idea what had woken him, but instinct screamed loud enough for even the deaf to hear.

          Scanning the ground, he found nothing but silent birds and squirrels. Farther up the trees was more of the same, stupid woodland creatures waiting for a Disney princess to sing with them. Nothing to explain his racing pulse until he reached the tree across from him, a familiar black shadow forcing a curse from his lips as he lowered the bow.

          *You are not allowed to complain about anyone’s survival instincts. * Natasha’s slender fingers flowed through the signs with familiar grace, punctuated with a toss of his hearing aids. Yet, by the time the arc of her throw allowed him to grab the aids from the air, she was already swinging herself onto the ground. He could not help the smirk that crosses his lips as he flicked them on in time to hear Nat’s grumbling.

          “…on ne dumayet, chto ya mogu vzyat' nozh dlya masla … sidya na dereve vsyu noch' bez ushey ….”

 

~*~*~*~

 

          For the first time in nearly a week, Ciara remembered.

          The unseen-Tony had provided an animated ballad of a young boy trying to protect his sister who could turn into a seal for the day’s film. It was cute and silly in a way she could not remember experiencing. Ciara felt surprisingly content though she debated if it was because the film was in Irish or because of the old folk lore woven throughout the story. Yet she seemed not to care which was true as she found herself laying back on her cot, humming an old Trad song and simply waiting.

          The film had been shorter than Tony’s normal offering. So when she realized how much time had passed, she figured she must have finished the film early. Her timing had to be off. Without any windows and with only the artificial glow of her ceiling for light, it really was a challenge to keep track of the hours; even if her timing was never off.

          It took less than an hour for contentment to evaporate into restlessness. 

          If this was Scoil Naomh Ita, she would understand. She had been weak. She had allowed an opponent to tend her wounds. She had allowed him to gather intel on her, even if it was just her name. She had been weak.  She may have been given breakfast and lunch since her error but that did not stop the flow of her thoughts. She had been weak. Back at an scoil, this is how it would start, isolation, withdrawal of food…

          Confess

          Máthair I have been weak

          A shudder ripped through her, sparking phantom pains along her neck and pulling at the bandages on her leg.

          “It’s not going to stop until you make it stop.”

          She had thought, had hoped… but he had meant until she gave up her intelligence. Gave up her hunt for the Widow. Until she failed her mission.

          Fingers ripped through the fabric of her pants revealing the rust coloured bandages below. It was a tactic she should have foreseen, friendly meals, kind words, tending her wounds… Kindness may be a less reliable form of interrogation, but she had fallen for it none the less. She was weak. She should have seen. Now she remembered.

          The bandages shredded under her fingers, threads cutting into her flesh with painful clarity. Her knees slammed into the hard floor as she dropped to a kneel, fingers curling around her ankles, back straight and eyes focused on a faraway point.

          “Is lann mé i lámha na Máthair”

          Her fingers dug into the flesh of her ankles as the words sang clear and strong.

          “Is claw amháin mé”

          Fear spiked as pain refused to shine through her back.

          “Níl rud ar bith agam”

          Nails delved into her ankles cleaving flesh between her nails as she began her confession…

 

~*~*~*~

 

          “I swear, Steve…” Bucky slammed a rifle into the weapon rack hard enough to make the Quinjet shutter and groan, “Having you in Operations was supposed to make my life easier… Not force me try to catch a fucking Quinjet before it barrels into the field!”

          The mission had started out simple: Stop Hydra stealing alien tech. Why did it never stay fucking simple? It quickly became stop Hydra faction Asshat from stealing alien tech from Hydra faction Bitchtits while protecting hostages in a boondock of shit hole town in Nebraska.

          “You didn’t have to catch it Buck, I had it the whole time.” The asshole refused to back down, but when had Steve Rogers EVER backed down? Bucky slammed one of his sidearms into the rack and was about to round on the stubborn punk when his team started to pipe up.

          “Except when you were reaching to catch Sam out the hatch….” Natasha did not even look up from her tablet, already compiling what little intel they had collected.

          “Or when you tried to slam the plane into the guy with the jet pack…” Sam added while assessing the damage to his wings. Steve bit the inside of his cheek, arms crossed stubbornly over his chest.

          “Or when you tried to shoot the guy off the roof…with a missile…” Clint was still singed after jumping off the building to avoid that little miscalculation. Bucky almost smirked when Steve dropped himself onto the bench; it was not really backing down, but even Steve could not deny his whole team. They really were a great team.

          Bucky dropped himself down beside Steve, pressing their shoulders together.  He knew Steve could not stay out of the fight; he had not been able to stay out of a fight since the 20’s. Had not been able to stay out of the fight as a scrawny little punk or a chorus girl or after waking up 70 years past his expiration date. He would never be able to really stay out of the fight.

          They just needed Steve to realize that before he got them all killed.

 

~*~*~*~

 

          Bucky had to admit, when dealing with the brainwashed Hydra assassin was one of the highlights of his day, he really needed to revaluate his life.

          Alright the true highlight was this morning and Steve making up for throwing a Quinjet at the team. That man should not be able to look that innocent and wicked at the same time…but the contentment of a morning in bed had quickly faded during a full day of post-mission clean up.

          The Avengers still had some breathing room as far as world governments were concerned, largely because most world governments were still sorting out the chaos of the snap/blip. Chaos like were the people who were in office before the snap still in office after? What about the people who took power before the blip? In the bedlam of the intervening 5 years, some borders had moved, some governments had changed, and he was pretty sure Texas had tried to invade Mexico and lost. Yet it seemed there was always someone trying to claim some authority to question the Avengers and their actions. It was a careful balance to play nice enough to get the intel they wanted but still make it clear they were going to operate independently.

          There might or might not be a betting pool on how many of these type of conference calls would finally push Steve back into the field.

          So yes, dealing with the brainwashed Hydra assassin was a highlight to his day. Even when things did not go to plan.

          Most days, Ciara was finishing whatever movie Tony suggested when dinner rolled around. After Clint’s inability to stop quoting Princess Bride, Bucky was trying to time it so she could finish her movie in peace and actually get a chance to enjoy it. She had yet to make a choice of her own, but she seemed to actually like the movies so that was something. Plus, even in AI form, Tony did have a surprisingly good idea of what people want to watch. Or at least he did when he was not trying to make a point or piss someone off with a bad joke. Fuck the Terminator movies. So, the silence that greeted him as the door slipped open was his first clue something had changed.

          The second clue came with the overpowering odor of human exertion that misted around him as it hit the cooler air of the hall. The floor was covered with an oily sheen of sweat that coalesced directly under Ciara. Though he could see her muscles shuddering under her mottled clammy skin, the pace of her push-ups would put a metronome to shame. She had refused to slow when the door opened, her eyes focused on some distant point well beyond the wall in a cold determination.

          “Hey, pizza’s here…” Bucky called out from the door, expecting her to wake from whatever trance she had fallen into, but her movements still would not let up. Up down up down up down…Arms into perfect right angles a moment before thrusting herself away from the floor again. Careful about intruding, he stepped forward and crouched down to try to get her attention, grey eyes trying to catch hers. “We’re going to want to get going before Clint eats it all….”

          As he moved closer, he could see that her eyes may have seemed focused elsewhere, but she was watching him in her periphery. Not unlike he would do with targets…. or handlers…a cold queasiness dropped into the pit of his stomach.

          “Ciara?” For a split second her eyes focused on him, eyebrows furrowed, and jaw clenched, before her eyes faded away again; ignoring his presence. Bucky honestly would have felt better if she had stayed expressionless, like the night he’d knocked her into the wall. Or maybe angry enough to throw a punch. Yet this dismissal, this rejection, stung.

          He found himself surprised by the tightness in his chest and hunched his own shoulders as, with hesitant steps, he moved back towards the hallway. He paused at the door, hoping she would look up, but just grumbled something about the food being there when she was ready. With a final fleeting look, he left the door open behind him and walked on.

          “Tony, how long has she been at it?” He asked as he headed back towards dinner, lip worried between his teeth. 

          “Eight unbelievable hours.” The AI actually sounded astonished even as Bucky stumbled.

          “She has been training for eight straight hours?” Even in his time with the Red Room or training other Soldiers, he would not have expected anyone to hold up to eight continuous hours of training.

          “No, she has been doing push-ups for eight straight hours.” Stopping dead, Bucky looks up at the camera in the corner of the hall, as if looking at the AI would help him understand.

          “She…has been doing push-ups…For eight hours?”

          “Since just after she ignored breakfast.” The stupidly overprotective streak that had forced him to pull Steve out of fistfights their entire childhood flared for a moment. He was tempted to march back to Ciara and drag her to dinner, away from whatever masochistic rebellion this was. Drag her kicking and swearing to the common room before depositing her into a chair and pushing food into her hands. Hell, he was not above sitting on someone for their own good.

          But rebellion was progress; even horribly stupid self-harming rebellion. Taking a breath and shaking out his arms to loosen the fists that had formed at his sides, he looked over his shoulder towards her room.

          “Leave the doors open between her room and the common room, lockdown anything dangerous between here and there. And... let me know when she stops…” Bucky huffed out his frustration but continued on. No reason they should both starve.

 

~*~*~*~

 

          The Soldier returned an hour later but did not try to interrupt her. Did not distract her from her task. His steps seemed surprisingly hesitant, but he did not stop until he reached her little table. Without a word and only a moment’s pause, he turned and left again.

          The door finally hissed closed behind him.

          It was not until she finally pushed herself back onto her knees a half-hour later that she saw the food he had left behind. She knew she would have no choice but to accept the nutrition. This time she would remember their kindness was not free. These were her captors, her opponents, and her target.

          Failure will not be tolerated.

          Ignoring the food long enough to take a cold shower seemed like a pathetic defiance when her legs buckled halfway back to the table, but the cold water had felt cleansing. She would clear the weakness from her body and mind with work or pain or water or any other method she could find.

          It was on her second attempt to walk to the table that she saw it.

          Laying on the table wrapped carefully in a plastic sheath and shining bright enough to burn away her resolve was a keen-edged scalpel.

Chapter Text

          Logically, Steve knew the pain his favorite grey eyes had been unable to hide last night was not the woman’s fault. Steve could remember the struggles Bucky had trusting those around him. Remembered it causing him to lash out in seemingly illogical ways. Steve remembered days when latent programming had pushed him into forgetting to eat or drink or pretty much anything else; disturbingly compliant and empty.  Remembered his heartbreaking while feeling like he was losing Buck all over again.

          Steve remembered, but he still could not accept that pain reflected in those eyes.

          So, if he was at her door a little too early in the morning to be considered polite it was completely to offer her another chance to stretch her legs. Sure, it was even too early to wake Sam for a run, but Sam could run whenever he wanted. In no way was he disappointed to find their guest was already awake, sitting carefully on the edge of her cot.

          The heat of petty vindictiveness fell away at the wide-eyed look she could not hide as she turned to him. Even as she tried to force a neutral mask onto her face, her tense muscles and barely shivering shoulder betrayed her.  This is what Hydra does, they break the strong and twisted them into perfect weapons, forgetting there were people beneath their lash. This woman had not hurt Bucky, she was just Hydra’s latest blade and victim.

          Ignoring the solidly familiar feeling of self-disappointment taking up residence in his chest, Steve plastered his best friendly and in no way Captain America smile on his face. Even as he squared his shoulders and stepped into the room, he struggled to find the balance between gentle and confident.  

          “Bucky wanted me to check if you wanted to hit the gym…” Ok, Bucky had really mused that there were better ways to train than eight hours of push-ups and wondered if he could find a way to get her out of her room more. Steve was just taking initiative. Providing an outlet. Maybe hopefully relieving some of the weight on Bucky’s shoulders. Really. When her carefully blank eyes sparked just a moment at the mention of Bucky’s name, Steve knew he had made the right call.

          Tilting his head down the hall and raising an eyebrow, he watched the battle she tried to hide behind her eyes. Steve knew it was not his fight, but he still struggled to stay silently on the side-lines. They could suggest, they could offer, they could show her a path; only she could choose to accept. Wordlessly and feigning strength, she took a few steps forward in acceptance even if her eyes did not quite meet his. Refusing to acknowledge the nausea her empty compliance produced, he started down the hall and down a set of stairs to the ground floor gym.

          “You know, I honestly don’t know if I could do push-ups for hours…” Steve was well aware he was filling the silence; Natasha would have smacked him upside the head, but it was easier than the numb quiet. “Forced marches, battle, hell maybe even a few hours of running… but I’ve always hated push-ups…” His words were faltering as they entered the welcoming embrace of the cavernous training space so he was almost grateful for the AI’s interruption.

          “May want to make it a leg day, Mary Kate…” Steve would have rolled his eyes at the Quiet Man reference if the AI had not continued, “I am counting at least five stress fractures in your arms from yesterday’s marathon…”

          “Wait, what?” Steve spun fast enough to see her flinch melt back into the empty mask, eyes straight ahead and dead. He could almost hear Natasha’s voice in his head to not freak out, but how was he supposed to just accept that she had literally worked herself until her bones had failed? Empty eyes drifted up to his and he could not help but wonder if it was a challenge or acceptance of a punishment to come.

          “I…I was going to go for a run…” He threw his thumb over his shoulder towards the track that ran along the windows about halfway up the three-story walls. Lists of exercises that did not require a person’s arms ran through his mind, although he was not sure how to suggest them. Would she pick a risky exercise just to continue yesterday’s self-punishment? Should he have left her safely in her room? Was it worst to try and stop her from the self-abuse?

          Rescuing him from the dilemma the dead-eyed woman simply nodded and stepped towards the spiral stairs up the track as if following a command.

          Not wanting to encourage her to push, Steve ran as he would pacing Sam. Yet the sedate pace only allowed his mind to wander. What on earth had possessed her to work out so long she literally broke? What power…what fear…could make a trained assassin push beyond even his own endurance simply to appear non-compliant in the hands of an adversary? Steve was a stubborn man, but there was always a reason and he just could not fathom hers. His thoughts chased his worry as she obediently followed him around the track.

          It only took twenty minutes.

          Twenty minutes of Steve worrying that he would stumble and say something to repeat the day before. Twenty minutes of him wondering if she should even be running with five fucking stress fractures in her arms, what other injuries was she hiding? Twenty minutes before she pushed enough to pass him for the first time, the dead look easing in her eyes.

          He tried to keep pace; he really did. It would be no good for her to push and have to catch herself. They were trying to help her, not challenge her. Plus, broken bones pain aside, Steve would never hear the end of it from Bucky.

          But Bucky would know there was no hope of Steve backing down the second time she lapped him.

 

~*~*~*~

 

          It was still absolutely anathema to Bucky that anyone would WANT to drag their ass out of bed at the crack of dawn for calisthenics. Any desire that ever existed in him to see sunrise had been crushed during basic training; let alone 70 years with Hydra’s merciless training schedules. In fact, the only thing that pushed Bucky out of bed this particular morning was the well-honed sense that Steve Rogers was up to something.

          Grumbling curses in a polyglot of languages, Bucky dragged himself down to the gym like a seek and destroy drone locked onto Steve’s chronic lack of survival instinct. His shuffling yet silent barefoot steps stopped dead as his eyes panned up to the running track, his sleep-addled brain trying to process what he was seeing. As expected, Steve was running with a disgusting amount of enthusiasm for oh fucking early. It was as if he missed the terrifying struggle for air of an asthma attack and was trying to recreate the feeling by punishing his near-perfect body into submission.

          What was less expected was the flash of a brunette actually keeping pace with him. Because of course Steve thought it was a great idea to be alone first thing in the morning with the brainwashed Hydra assassin who had given Widow a fight and could do push-ups for over eight bloody hours. Because of course he would not think to wake anyone or tell Tony to wake anyone, or in any way have back up if she was as pissed today as she had been yesterday.

          Bucky was already moving towards the track, jaw clenched so tight he could feel bone crack. It was far too early for this shit.

          Which is what he would say if anyone saw him spin around and dodge like a cat avoiding a hose just because a purple nerf dart came flying towards his head.

          When his eyes finally fell on the blond shadow perched up in the rafters and his cheeky little salute, Bucky felt his legs give out under him. His ass hit the floor with an undignified huff. Steve was not a complete idiot. Alright, he still was a complete idiot but at least he was a complete idiot with a sniper as backup. So, not much different than his normal.

          It was not that his concern was unjustified. Mr no parachute was absolutely a self-sacrificing idiot with the survival instinct of a goldfish on steroids and a habit of dropping his guard around assassins. And Ciara was doubtlessly a brainwashed and enhanced assassin of Hydra whom Bucky may have given a brand-new blade...

          Yet Clint had told them to show trust, to give Ciara a reason to trust them. It really should not have been surprising that trusting his own life to this process was significantly easier than trusting his idiot of a boyfriend’s life. With his heart rate barely under control, Bucky crept out of the gym before anyone else could see him and just in time for guilt to hit him full force.

          A half-hour later, when Bucky had finally escaped the early morning panic attack, he was not sure if his timing was just that good or if the smell of caffeine had lured the two from the masochism of running. Steve at least had the courtesy to look contrite for all of thirty seconds before squaring his shoulders for a fight that Bucky already knew they would both lose.  Bucky just shook his head and held out Steve’s coffee mug as an olive branch before looking over at Ciara. He was truly relieved that the eyes peeking out over her flushed cheeks were conflicted instead of empty. Sure, she looked like the cross of a deer caught in headlights with a caged tiger, but that was still an improvement over the day before. He would gladly accept the morning’s heart attack if it meant that look had melted.

          “Kettle’s on.” He offered his second olive branch of the morning, pushing a mug a little closer to her even as she stayed locked just past the door. The tiger-caught-in-headlights eyes looked over at the hallway that would lead back to her room almost longingly, a feeling that hit Bucky where he stood. The first few months after DC, the only time he had left the small pieces of isolation he had found had been to resupply or because paranoia sang to him that he had stayed in one place too long. After life in a cage, the cage becomes an oasis.

          Just as he was about to find a way to rescind the offer, to give her an out back to solitude, she gave the smallest of nod and took a reluctant if solid step closer to them.

          Steve plopped a tea bag into her mug and poured the boiling water over it before turning away as if he had not noticed her indecision. It looked just like he was prepping the tea for a friend. Bucky was reminded that Steve had gone through this before; he had spent time watching Bucky struggle with his own demons. This man already knew how to help fight without acknowledging there was even a battle raging.

          Steve was still an idiot, but he was Bucky’s idiot.

          “I still don’t understand why anyone would want to run at the ass crack of dawn,” Bucky quipped pouring himself a mug of coffee and starting another pot in anticipation of Barton making his way out eventually. “There are plenty of hours in the day…. Oh fucking early doesn’t need to be one of them…” Steve shook his head with a long-suffering sigh at the familiar complaint.

          “No one woke you up for PT, Sarge,” Steve casually pulled out the milk and sugar, placing it next to Ciara’s untouched mug without a look. Bucky wanted to say: Yea, because your super assassin boyfriend doesn’t know the second you leave the bed or Darlin’, you haven’t done ANYTHING quietly since you were 80lbs soaking wet. Yet he bit his tongue.

          “No one who wants to live would wake Barnes up. Ever.” Clint stumbles out of the elevator somehow coming down from the residences with Lucky nudging him along, pajamas crumpled around him and eyes crusted over as if he hadn’t been sitting in a sniper’s nest 10 minutes before.

          “And that is why I made you a fresh pot Clint,” Bucky hands over the brew to Clint’s over enthusiastic, give me hands with reverence and true gratitude. Clint might be likely to break into your apartment at three in the morning to steal your coffee, but he was also fiercely protective of his people and Bucky was glad Steve was one of his people. 

          “Barnes, you are an angel.” If Clint pulled out a chair directly next to Ciara in his way to climb up on the breakfast bar, cradling the pot like it was his first child, no one really noticed. And if the circle they made with the archer on the bar, Steve leaning on the counter and Bucky between the two, was completed by that chair and Ciara who was now holding her warm mug with two hands, it was a complete fluke. No one looked as Ciara struggled to accept the non-invitation but made sure to smile and act as if she was part of the conversation through more coffee, Bucky refilling her tea, and Steve placing breakfast before them all.  

          Forty minutes later, with their mute assassin safely ensconced back in her room and bellies full of breakfast and coffee, Bucky finally turned to his loving and amazing boyfriend... and punched him in the arm.

          “Really Rogers? 0600 runs with assassins? Was Clint back up or were you just lucky Bird Boy basically sleeps in a nest with his bow?” Steve’s not so subtle blush was all the answer he needed.

 

~*~*~*~

 

           Confess

           This doesn’t end until you want it to

            Unseeing eyes locked on the untried blade shining across the room. Tight fists dug crescents into her clammy palms as her mind swam.

           Is claw amháin mé

           Hydra stole us from the world

 

~*~*~*~

 

          One of the biggest contradictions in the rather unique life of the Winter Soldier, one that he shielded even from the man he now shared his life with, is that it was not all bad. Not that Bucky would wish the experience on anyone except maybe those sporting a squid tattoo and he would much rather literally hurl himself into the sun then go back; but even hell had its moments of light.

          Nataliya, Natasha, had been one of the Red Room’s bright spots once upon a time. In a time where he was little more than an object, a weapon to be owned, aimed, and used, Natasha gave him a glimpse of being a person. Stolen instants of comfort, release, and humanity. Hoarded moments of light and warmth in the winters of Russia; their fire of Prometheus. And like Prometheus, they had been punished for that comfort; pushed back into the dark and cold.

          Even with the ice and blood that followed he would never regret those glimpses of humanity.

          Yet this, this piece of light, this gift from the Red Room, he had been allowed to keep. On all counts, he had been allowed to keep it because it benefited his captors as much as his marksmanship or determination. A weapon functions best at peak conditioning. Even still, Bucky fought to reclaim this for himself just like his skill, his arm, and even his name.

          But this, this he could share.

          He had gone to check on their confused assassin tiger cub a little after lunch, hoping she had recovered from the night before. Honestly, if she had gotten any sleep at all he would have been thrilled. It had been days since she started running with Steve in the morning but it was easy to get up when you never really slept. The bloodshot eyes that had greeted him had been proof of another sleepless night. So, with a sympathetic shake of his head and an inviting gesture, Bucky had coaxed Ciara out of her room and down the stairs. By the time Bucky had guided Ciara to the corner of the gym that he and Natasha had claimed, the assassin’s interest was almost strong enough to break through the fatigue.

          People underestimate the control a good assassin must have over their own bodies to do what they do well. Being able to get anywhere and leave just as quickly sometimes means climbing buildings that should not be scalable or swinging around ships, bridges, and one time a windmill. A skill that is not always possible to practice in the field. So, while the Red Room taught ballet for fighting, gymnastics was for assassinations.

          This corner of the cavernous space was carpeted in wide empty spaces of thick blue mats broken only by a large set of uneven bars. Along the edge of the wall sat a set of parallel bars, pommel horse, high balance beam, ropes, frames, springboard and vault table waiting patiently for attention. Above the mats hung a well-polished set of rings as well as a higher set of trapezes that would make Cirque du Soleil jealous.

          “Cad é seo?” The bite of Ciara’s words failed to cut as she seemed to be unable to keep her eyes off the equipment before them. Arms crossed over her chest, fingers digging into her own arms and jaw clenched; yet her toes almost shyly brushed the blue mat before her.

          “Training.” A simple word and invitation, the wave of his hand towards the equipment, a spark of interest in her blue eyes. “Have at it, use what you want as long as you want.” Narrowed eyes watched him a moment, fingers letting go of her arms and brushing against the base of her skull while she studied him. Narrow eyes waiting for the catch. Keeping her eyes on him, she took a step onto the mats and then another as if to challenge him to deny her. To break his word. To demanded a price.

          Bucky just raised an eyebrow and waited. This he could share.

          Ciara waited for the cruel joke experience told her this must be. A moment, then two before her blue eyes turned and refocused on the equipment again. Seeming to ignore Bucky’s presence and moving quickly enough to prove she thought her time was limited, Ciara positioned the springboard carefully before moving to the other end of the mat.

          As if she could not hold herself back another moment, she ran full tilt at the springboard and launched herself straight into the air. Soaring, wisps of rich brown hair escaping her braid like feathers, before sure fingers curled around the wooden rings hanging from the ceiling. With a surprised but pleased little gasp, the assassin rode out the swing of the rings like a child on the playground. When the rings finally settled, and a rosy hue painted her pale cheeks, Ciara pulled herself up. Arms tight against her sides and the rings bumping her hips, her eyes fluttered closed as she oh so slowly folded her legs under her and pushed her weight from her shoulders to her wrists, inverting her body while keeping her arms straight and strong.

          Not wanting to interrupt the relief and joy shining unguarded from the woman, Bucky silently padded over to the inert equipment. While Ciara moved in glacially slow but graceful spirals, he carefully set up his own distraction. With practiced and fluid steps, Bucky found his bare feet carefully placed a slackline pulled between two low metal bars. Even with the soothing burn of muscles making thousands of minute adjustments to keep his balance he felt the moment her eyes fell on him. Although her movements had not changed nor had she given any other signs of her split attention, one does not survive 70 years as an assassin without developing a sixth sense of when one is being watched.

          “Have you ever used that in the field?” A feline chaîné turned him towards her question from his place on the rope. Ciara was upside down once more, muscles seeming to shiver with excitement at being challenged as she held a perfect form. Even if her eyes stayed focused on the floor below her, the curiosity coloring her words was unmistakable.

          “Not much I haven’t used in the field at this point,” Bucky answered honestly as he leaned against the frame and gave her his full attention. “But yes, haven’t always been lucky enough to have a solid surface beneath my feet coming or going from a target.” Flipping right way up one last time and pushing her arms out perpendicular to her body, she stopped hiding her focus.

          “How long have you actually been active?” Bucky raised an eyebrow at her curiosity and smirked.

          “Are you asking how old I am?” With a fluid motion, Ciara pulled her arms back into her hips before she launched herself from the rings and spun. With barely a sound, her feet touched back on the ground and her eyes found him again without recanting the question. “Been in the field, one way or another, since the war in 1943.” Not wanting to let those years settled between his shoulders, Bucky pushed himself off the frame and delivered a tight tuck spin before finding himself on the floor a few feet from her.

          “Honestly thought the Soldier was a tale Máthair told to scare young iníonacha,” Ciara admitted shaking her head. “The Red Room, sure, we knew that was real. That was the scale that we were measured against and found wanting…But a ghost of an assassin doing Hydra’s bidding for 70 years…” She shook her head in a moment of disbelief.  Bucky forced past the blender of emotions that still spun around the idea of his time with Hydra and started cleaning up the frame.

          “And how long have you been in the field?” Bucky asked not really expecting an answer. The fact that he had her name was probably due more to exhaustion than trust. Yet the flash of fear that ran through her eyes before she turned away still took him by surprise.  Why would a question not far from name, rank, and serial number cause undisguised fear? “You don’t know, do you?”

          The carelessly spoken realization had her turning on him in defensive anger.

          “Is lann mé i lámha na Máthair. Does not matter how long that’s been true.” Anger bubbled up from the former soldier in sympathy.

          “It matters because it’s part of who you are. It matters because your history is your own, no matter whose orders you follow…” By sheer force of will, Bucky kept his breathing steady even as his fists clenched at his sides. There were still gaps in his own memory where, whether by deep freeze or being wiped near completely, even Shuri could not heal the damage.

          When Bucky was able to pull his attention back to the present, Ciara was searching his face with pained curiosity. The wide-eyed plea in her eyes made him wonder just how young she had been when Hydra’s serum had started coursing through her veins.  When had her life ended and Hydra’s imprisonment begun?

          “Níl rud ar bith agam.” Ciara answered his unasked question with a self-deprecating shrug.

          “No matter what they take from you, you are not nothing.” That truth burned through him with such intensity that she blinked as if blinded. The yearning, the wanting, the pleading behind her eyes brought him back to the shores of the Potomac. Chaos around him, debris still raining down and a familiar but unknown bloody face looking up at him as the water lapped at the shore. The first time in his memory he had wanted. Wanted to live, wanted to breathe, wanted to rest, wanted to choose, wanted to be.

          A want reflected back to him in blue eyes.

          “Do you want more time down here?” He asked her gently a motioned back to his little bright spot of a space. Small choices, small opportunities at humanity; small pieces of light. This he could share.

 

~*~*~*~

 

          Will he come again? It all makes sense when he talks.

          They are nothing without us

          But then it all gets louder. Sharper

          Níl rud ar bith agam

          Sleep would not save her. Staying awake did not keep the nightmares at bay.

          It is not going to stop until you make it stop

          She needed it to stop.

 

~*~*~*~

 

          She really should have seen it coming.

          If Natasha had any kind of personal motto, it would be that if something goes wrong, it is on her. If something surprised her, it was on her. She had no one to blame but herself.

          It is not like she was surprised to get the call to assemble only an hour after finally falling asleep. It had become obvious that the universe did not believe she actually needed sleep anymore. Even while she was seriously starting to wonder if Clint had the right idea about finding a safe way to inject caffeine.

          She had not been surprised that Interpol’s intel had been spotty. Sure, they had been asked to support an officially sanctioned operation and thus had actual lines of communication with forces on the ground. However, the day a government agency gives them the full picture would be the day she knew the world had been replaced with Life Model Decoys.

          So, with spotty intel and no sleep, they ended up facing an AIM team creative enough to go after their snipers before engaging the rest of the team. She could see the creativity and not intelligence as, with two well-placed charges AIM had taken out the team’s cover fire. Clint had broken his arm falling into a dumpster to avoid an explosion and James had broken his leg trying to get to the archer before the second explosion. Not so smart, however, when you piss off Black Widow and not Captain America on a rather personal level. The mission got completed even if a few more AIM scientists than expected ended up with concussions.

          At least they had gotten home in time for dinner.

          So, when Steve was called away to deal with another government strongman trying to clip the Avengers into a new leash, Natasha happily waved him on. While she was not above reminding politicians of the skeletons in their closets, most still thought she was dead and she was not in any rush to prove them wrong. It was really a no brainer between politicians who do not know their place and escorting their lately almost comatose assassin back to her room.

          In almost three weeks, the woman still had not said two words to any of them beyond Hydra’s preprogrammed responses. Hello, you have reached Hydra programming, please leave your message after the propaganda. Sure, she went running with Steve and had dinner with The Shittiest Club every night. But it seemed the longer she had been with them, the more she was fading away. It was completely possible James was still visiting her every few nights to keep her from following through on the sadistic self-punishment protocols, but the scalpel he had given her had not moved and he had not shared any new intel.

          Not intel, Natasha scolded herself, information about the victim not intel on a target. With a shake of her head, Natasha opened the door for the other woman. She should know better; she did know better. All dinner the woman looked like she battled between pain, exhaustion, rage, and loss; the last of which was the most disturbing by far. Everything this woman knew about the world was being questioned. She was realizing her very mind had been turned against her, and even with how strong their guest obviously was, she might not be strong enough. Even standing within arm’s reach of her supposed target, the woman looked more like a semi-transparent painting than an operative of some skill.

          “You know, you are actually doing alright.” The words seemed empty even to Natasha’s own ears. “They try to turn us into weapons, but they can’t erase us, they can’t stop us.” Natasha honestly flinched as she watched the pain return to the woman’s eyes; so much for being comforting.

          Natasha should have seen it coming.

          Before she could find a way to make things worse, before she could try to explain, before she could even release her shoulders from her flinch, the other woman pounced.

          A fist connected with Natasha’s nose, sparking fireworks before her eyes and pushing her back a full step. Surprise snapped into situational awareness. Widow blocked the next frenzied punch and kicked before spinning out of reach. What skill and control this woman had shown nearly three weeks ago in the forest had morphed into pure desperation. Even as Natasha threw her into a wall with a sickening crack, she got back up in a possessed frenzy.

          Arm around throat, head into wall, flip onto back, kick to the ribs, sweep of legs, punch to face, the slam of an elbow, the crash of a body into metal…

          The crack of a gun.

          A body crashed like stone into Natasha, pushing the air from her lungs as her head hit the floor. Standing in the shadow of the doorway, one arm leaning awkwardly over a metal crutch and panting softly, stood James. Strain and disappointment etched in every muscle from his jaw down his arm to the gun clutched in his fist.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

          “Did you really have to shoot her?”

          “Nat was doing more damage trying NOT to kill her,” Bucky looked up at the bobbing head of the archer leaning against the door jam.

          “Yea, that sounds right…” Clint conceded as a man who had been on the receiving end of Natasha’s “mercy” more than once. “It’s really too bad cognitive recalibration doesn’t work against Nazi neurology.” Bucky’s undignified snort of a response earned him a lopsided grin.

          “Pal, if getting hit in the head had worked, I never would have missed a birthday.” Once again Clint was smart enough to concede the point with a tilt of his purple Band-Aid speckled face as he sagged a little farther against the doorframe. “Go get some sleep, Barton, I’ve already got this one to deal with. You’re on your own with Nat when you fall over from sleep deprivation and break the other arm…”

          “Low blow, bro…” Yet even as Clint complained, he scurried off down the hall, leaving Bucky trying to get comfortable in a stiff armchair. Alright, it was not the chair’s fault as it was far nicer than chairs in most hospitals or med bays, but even with serum enhanced healing it is hard to get comfortable after falling off a building. During a mission, during a battle, pain is so easy to ignore. The need to stay alive and keep those around you alive can block out some of the most intense pains. Yet when the calm invades, when peace demands its own space, the pain comes back with a burning vengeance. Popping his broken leg against the white railing of a hospital bed, Bucky allowed the comforting metal of the gun on his thigh and years of training to keep him from fidgeting…much.

          Bedside vigils are not supposed to be comfortable. Or so he kept reminding himself for another two hours as he started to wonder how a serum enhanced assassin was struggling to recover from an ICER.

          Yes, Ciara had attacked Natasha and succeeded in doing a respectable amount of damage. Yet while her first attack had been a well-planned albeit foiled operation, this had been a frenzied and mindless assault. Everyone knew about the scalpel Bucky had given Ciara, it would have made a risk into a true betrayal of his team to do anything else; not to mention it would have been really stupid. So it had become obvious fairly soon after the dust settled that the blade had still not moved. If Ciara had truly wanted to kill Natasha she could have done much worse damage.

          Those thoughts running around in his brain and rechecking the gun a third time to make sure he had picked up an ICER and not Glock (even if he could identify different modifications of any number of different handguns in the dark half asleep), the shock wave of her sitting up hit him full force. Wild blue eyes took in the room as if each shadow would come alive and swallow her. In an instant despite her still healing body, Ciara was crouched on the edge of the bed ready to launch herself onto the floor.

          “Don’t do that…” Bucky wobbled up to stand by the bed almost wishing she had stayed out another few hours so he could take the damn cast off. Especially as she seemed she was only focused on getting away. “Ciara…” His left hand reached just in time to keep her from ripping the needle from her arm and she froze, eyes finally focusing on him.

          “Barnes?” The breathy plea still caused a smile to pull at his lips. In the past week or so, he had made sure to use her name whenever the others were not around; yet she had chosen not to use his name. Progress was progress, even in a drug-induced haze. Panic that still clung to her as she tried to worry at the IV through his gentle but unyielding fingers.

          “Hey, you’re ok. Tá tú ceart go leor.” He dropped the rail on the side of her bed and sat to get off his healing leg. “You need to settle, you have broken ribs, a dislocated shoulder, and almost punctured a lung…” The panicked look did not settle as she looked down at herself, fingers frantically poking at the bruises littering her chest and abdomen.

          “I… don’t feel anything…” The crack of fear unmasked her accent with a soft lilt and musical drop. “I can’t…I don’t…” With a surprising amount of strength, she almost slipped her wrist from his grip as she redoubled her efforts to escape.

          “Hey…Hey! It’s just a painkiller…we wanted you to be able to sleep…” She moved like a wolf in a trap, despite and unthinking. While he focused on keeping her from hurting herself again, it took him a minute to hear her mumbled words.

          “Is gá a bhraitheann …. It’s always worse when they don’t let you feel….”

          Unable to move, unable to fight, unable to feel until it’s too late. Ice and hands and blades…

          Bucky slipped the needle out of her skin before he shook the memory. The cold little prick of metal leaked slowly against the sheet but she froze and looked up at him even more confused.

          “No one will hurt you here.” His voice was an icy but a firm promise even as she pulled her knees up to her bruised chest. “No one will touch you while I am here.” His eyes bore into her as he forced away the last of the flashback.

          “Cad? …An tusa mo dheartháir?” The words were not exactly harsh, even still a little wobbly from the pain meds pushing their way out of her system, simply disbelieving. Disbelieving that someone would care about anything other then what she could do for them. Disbelieving anyone would watch her back. Disbelieving she was not alone.

          "I’m not going to fight you. You are my friend.”

          “Oh yea, I am your brother the Soldier.” The joke was flat with exhaustion, how could one person prod at so many of his emotional wounds and still keep him coming back? He still kept hold of her hand to keep her from worrying at the abandoned intravenous line. The drugs were working their way through her system, leaving her in a semi-conscious haze, yet she needed to know she was safe if she was going to heal. What he had not expected was her eyes looking deadly serious as her head tilted to the side.

          “Níl….Deartháir Geimhridh.” It was the finality in her words, a clarity in her icy blue eyes, that brought Bucky up short and staring. They were the first words of the night not spoken in fear, simply stating her own truth and Bucky could not help a warmth building in his chest. A warmth that did not fade even as he noticed the obvious exhaustion was tearing at the edges of her reality.

          “Rest, Ciara,” he suggested with a shake of his head. With gentle hands, he pulled up a blanket from the foot of the bed and tucked it around her, rewarded when a surprised but contented sound escaped her lips. “We can talk when you are less… drugged.” Ciara allowed herself to be guided back in the bed and tucked in, yet her eyes never left him. A bit unnerved, Bucky lightly ran his fingers gently over her face as if coaxing a child to sleep before settling himself back into his waiting chair.

          “I can’t make it stop…” At the soft plea in her words, Bucky looked up again and found her subdued blue eyes resting on his face. Blanket tucked up to her chin and hair curling in whips around her face she looked so small. Chest constricting, he guided one of those mahogany curls behind her ear and gently brushed the hinge of her jaw.

          “Until you can, I’ll just have to keep you from doing anything else stupid…” With a wobbly nod and a weak smile, blue eyes closed and allowed Morpheus to finally take her.

 

~*~*~*~

 

          Thunder vibrated through Ciara’s hollow skull as consciousness forced itself upon her.

          The throbbing of her own heartbeat forcing her to crush dry eyes shut to keep them from liquifying out of her cranium for a disturbingly long moment. Only when she was certain her brain would not ooze out her orbital socket, she pushed past the pain and took in her surroundings.

          A choice she instantly regretted.

          White tile walls and floors. Metal beds. Worn leather restraints. Blades. Needles. Cold hands.

          Ciara found herself halfway to the door before her next breath, before the world tilted and dumped her into an undignified pile on the cold tile floor.

          Numb. No pain. But she could see. See the blade in her skin. See muscles and bone.

          Shaking hands tried to push herself back up, or just out, out the door, out of the infirmary.

          Out.

          A strong hand landed on her shoulder and held her firm, a metal one wrapping around her opposite bicep.

          No. Need to get out. Need to keep moving.

          The hands tightened. They shook her. Tried to turn her.

          Need to keep moving.

          “Ciara!” The whip of her name brought her head up fast enough that the world around her could not keep up. She had to struggled to keep from falling into the restraining hands and strong arms restraining her. Grey searching eyes dark with concern, dark hair falling carelessly across his face, no anger, no contempt, just…worry?

          The Winter Soldier, Bucky Barnes, not the doctors, not an scoil, not Máthair…

          “Ciara, if you keep up like this you are going to puncture that lung after all.”

          Punctured lung?

          The target right in front of her. Alone.

          The only thing that made sense. Nothing else makes sense.

          This mission had to end. It did not matter how. It just had to stop.

          Ciara pushed away, feet struggling for traction on the smooth floor, until she found her way against the wall. Why was she alive? She had attacked the Widow, it had not mattered that she did not have a weapon, had not mattered that her chances of success were non-existent; her mission was just to find an end.

          Why was she alive?

          When she looked up she saw the Soldier had not moved to stop her. There he sat, face carefully neutral but eyes giving away concern. His shoulders tight but hands loose, not a threat. His leg pushed out at an unyielding angle…

          “You are hurt.” The words surprised her as they tumbled out of her uncontrolled lips. Had she attacked him too? Had she been so desperate for anything to make this all stop that she had attacked the Winter Soldier? Had attacked Barnes? How was she alive? No. She wouldn’t... No…

          He grimaced and allowed himself to drop back onto the floor.

          “Don’t dive off a building to protect a fellow sniper.” The words were light and disgruntled but his gaze had not left her. Resting his hands on his knees he could almost mask the worry behind his casual pose. Dive off a building… She felt her shoulders drop in instant relief. She had not attacked Barnes. She had not hurt him.

          “The cast is only for a day; I suspect its more Steve’s idea of a punishment than really needed.” Punishment? Who could still punish the Winter Soldier? Who would dare? Steve… Rogers… sometimes called Cap… Large muscled man with the bearing of a soldier expecting to be obeyed. Always stiff and controlled at their dinners while feigning friendliness.

          “Creative punishment from a handler…” The carefully amused face the Soldier had been nursing dropped away without warning.

          “Steve is NOT my handler.” The words echoed in her skull fast and hard, shocking away the last of the haze of medication. She had her back pressed up against the wall as she locked her eyes closed against the renewed vibration in her skull. When the thudding finally returned to a baseline dull ache and her eyes reopened, she tried to reassess the man before her. It took him another moment to bring his breathing and face back under control but he looked determined to make her understand. “Steve is my partner.”

          A strand of hair tickled her cheek as her head fell to the side. Why would the most effective assassin in the last century need a partner? Sure, he had been known to command other assets for larger assignments, but he was most deadly on his own in the shadows. Having to watch out for another asset would be operationally detrimental for an assassin. As questions bubbled up in her mind, she finally recognized the look he was trying to hide behind a mask of anger; a look of doubt and fear. Why would the Soldier fear telling her intel about people he had forced her to eat with for weeks?

          But this was not the Winter Soldier showing fear. This was Bucky Barnes watching her carefully digest this information.

          “Steve is your partner.” His slow and careful nod finally switched her train of thought causing her to blink. Partner, not an operational asset or liability but a social relationship outside of tactical consideration. “No handler. A partner?” He nodded again and it took her a minute to fully realize why he looked more guarded then he had when suggesting a proper blade. “Why tell me if you are worried I will use this against you?” It took him a moment to find the words as if he had stepped into a minefield without a map.

          “I am realizing I can’t ask you to trust me if I don’t trust you.” Trust. Trust was a liability. Like going into an operation without armour or intel. Trust was to be commanded and compelled, not given.

          Yet he was not demanding her trust...or her loyalty… or her obedience. The Soldier Barnes was giving her his trust and giving her another blade to allow her to feel safe, even if it would cause him to bleed. Ciara took in his tense shoulders, careful posture, the mask of neutrality failing to cover his eyes.

          “I won’t hurt Steve.” The certainty in those words surprised her but she could not stand the vulnerability from Barnes. No one that strong should look that defenceless. It caused an unnatural and ridiculous need to reach out as she hid in the corner. “Even if he runs at a disgustingly early hour.” The shock of his laugh relaxed both their shoulders and brought a soft smile to her lips. His lost look was gone; she had done alright.

          “I can’t argue with you.” A moment later he had caught his breath, leaning heavily on his arm to keep upright, “You know you don’t have to run with him in the morning. He is a big boy and can run on his own.”

          “Worse ways to spend the morning…” She mused before hesitating to add, “it’s…it’s nice that he asks me to come…” Warmth returned to his eyes and pushed away the last of the uncertainty.

          “Better you than me.” The unwavering certainty in his voice almost allowed her to laugh. “But come on, you do actually need to rest.”

          White tile walls and floors. Metal beds…Before she could react, he was helping her back to her feet.

          It was not until he guided her out the hallway and back to her own room, to her own cot, that she fully accepted he had freed her from another ghost.

 

~*~*~*~

 

          “You know you can skip a night. Go eat with the others…” Clint suggested over his shoulder while he stirred a dollop of raspberry jam into the steaming mug on the counter.

          “You never skipped a night.” Were the words accusation or admiration? Awkwardly balancing two mugs between his broken and uninjured arm, he made his way around the couch Natasha was lounging on.

          “Nat, you are far too smart to use me as an example,” he retorted. Warmth settled over him the moment the smoky sweet steam of her Russian tea melted the stress clinging to her body. Natasha was the only person he would willingly prepare leaf water for and this was why.

          “You may be the world’s worst decision maker,” a point he could not deny, “but your track record with beating brainwashing is impressive.” While she was still fully engrossed with savoring her tea, Clint resisted the instinct to roll his eyes and risked an assessing glance towards her. The nasty bruises around her eyes and nose were already starting to lighten into a sickening yellow. A stick-on heating pad on one shoulder was the only other external sign of injuries but Clint could see how she was favoring one side as she lounged.

          “You took some beatings before I came out of it.” She continued as her eyes met his and he quickly hid behind a sip of coffee; he knew he was caught. He had no right to his worry but he could not help it.

          “You were worth it,” he whispered into his mug, but he had no right to that either. “Come on, I take more of a beating walking home from Starbucks,” he pointed out when he dropped the shield of his mug.

          “Man, you could find trouble walking back from your own coffee maker.” Sam countered as he walked past them into the kitchen. Clint could not help but feel rescued from Nat’s inquiring gaze.

          “Why? Who have you been talking to?” The archer played into the distraction with all his might. Yet Sam ignored the question as he settled into the armchair across from Clint.

          “You planning on joining us tonight?” Natasha asked, shifting her eyes away from her struggling archer and taking another sip of her tea.

          “I figured with literally every member of your little group session here either bandaged up...or Steve… you could use an alternate tonight…”

Chapter Text

          Everything hurt.

          The sickening mass of guilt festering deep in the claw’s gut made it clear the pain was justified.

          Confess…. reveal your sin

          Punish…cleanse your sin

          Redemption … reject your sin

          The residual tape on her arm forced a shuddering chill through her body, renewing and reawakening pain. Gradual pain can be ignored and any iníon who survived past age twelve could resist most torture. Yet Máthair was creative and effective. When correction was required, Máthair would numb their bodies first. Then, only when they were bleeding and broken husks would she allow the pain to hit all at once when the drugs were ripped away. The body holds all the pain in potential until Máthair decided to release your sin against you in one overwhelming inescapable wave.

          Shivering and seeking to avoid more ire, the claw pried her eyes open before pushing herself up onto her elbows. The light above her seemed to brighten as her eyes inched open but that was likely just the effects of headache from redemption. Struggling to blink away the dizzying lights that burst before her eyes, she pulled herself to sit on the edge of the cot while supressing a groan. 

          Weakness is not tolerated

          The white lights refused to clear by the time the nausea had passed, forcing her to finally take in her surroundings. White walls instead of cement. White floors instead of rough wood. Leftover food. She had been allowed to eat? Was she in the infirmary? Why not in the dorm with the other iníonacha?

          A sliver of silver resting beside the paper plate called her off the unfamiliar cot without a second thought. Máthair would never allow her weapons after redemption; these things must be earned. Confusion swam with the unyielding dizziness. This was not a throwing blade, it seemed far too light to fly far or true. The handle was too smooth to be gripped firmly in combat…

          A blade that cuts clean.

          Ciara staggered back and crashed into the wall.

          The Winter Soldier.

          No…Barnes.

          Deartháir Geimhridh.

          The floor rolled under her as she slipped down the wall.

          Attacking the Widow from the tree, attacking the Widow in the hallway, Widow with a steaming mug of tea.

          Trying to escape, finding the Solider, Barnes tending her wounds, bad Irish.

          Pizza…Dog…Running….

          Air refused to pass her pale lips, the rolling floor pulling her under and tossing her around until she could not find up. The weight of the water was crushing against her chest, trying to pulverize her heart as it pinned her lungs.

          “Tá mé chun bá”

          Can’t breathe.

          Water forcing her down.

          Spinning her around.

          Confess.

          Where is up?

          Down.

          “…chun bá…’

          Can’t breathe.

          It doesn’t stop.

          All her training and conditioning failed and she was going to drown.

          Down.

          Waves battering.

          Something massive wrapped around her, pulling her farther down.

          Push.

          She could not get out from under the weight.

          Elbow.

          She could not find up.

          Punch.

          She was going to drown.

          “CIARA!” The waves crashed over her as she gasped her way to the surface.  The water was crushing her chest, but she could see the blinding white light.

          “Come on…” The waves ripped the words away, but she had to know where they were coming from; she had to follow them.

          “Got to breathe…take a breath with me…” How was she supposed to breathe with the waves crashing over her? While it was pushing, pulling, forcing her back down. But she had to follow that voice.

          “Bá…” She forced the word past her lips and over the waves, trying to gasp in the air before they crushed into her again.

          “I’ve got you…. Won’t let you drown…. Just breathe and hold it for me….” Hold the breath. She could do that. Keep the wave from stealing it. The breath was tiny at best, but she held onto it for the dear life it was.

          “There you go… let it out nice and slow…” The waves pushed the little puff of air out but the voice was just as gentle. “Alright, try a deeper breath…. there you go…” The voice coached her through as if she had just discovered the wonders of oxygen. Yet he did as he promised and did not let her drown while the waves slowed.

          “Coming back now?” Back from where? “There…can you tell me something you see?” Ciara blinked her burning eyes and tried to push through.

          “Bán…” The broken laugh that responded pushed the last of the water down.

          “Yea…. We should do something about that. Give me two more…” she blinked again, surprised to find her eyes as wet as they were on fire.

          “Buataisí…agus…the hallway….” The hallway outside her cell.

          “Ah… English, thanks for that. Give me something you hear.”

          “You.” Again, a short pained laugh.

          “Alright, smartass. Who am I?” She was finally able to lift her face from the sea of white to find the source of the weight on her arms.

          “Barnes…” His watery smile made him seemed as drained as she felt.

          “There you are…” Allowing himself to settle on the floor where he had been crouched in front of her, Barnes reached over for a bottle of water. “Here… Panic attacks always make me thirsty as hell…” Ciara took the water without question and downed half of it before slumping back against the wall.

          “Can’t panic…Weakness…” She brought the bottle back up to her lips but could not make herself drink.

          “An attack isn’t weakness. It means you’ve been too strong too long,” he recited with a shrug. “Or so I’ve been told... We are still human no matter what they try to tell you.”  All she could do was nod, too tired to point out they were claws, weapons, not human. He gave her another minute to catch her breath, her eyes closing to try to quench their burning. “Do you think you could tell me what happened? What pushed you?” Greedily, she took a moment to enjoy a few more unmolested breaths before trying to push back through the waves to find an answer for him.

          “The scalpel…” Barnes’ sharp intake of breath had her quickly shaking her head. “No…I…. lost where I was…. lost…. I thought I was back…back…it reminded me…” She forced her eyes open again, hoping he would see it was not his gift, his promise, that had caused this. Too worn to decipher the look he wore, she resorted to staring in hope her broken mind could be forced to cooperate. Finally, he shook his head and stood.

          “You are here… And here I was coming to take you to dinner, but if you’re too tired I can bring you back something.” She was unquestioningly too tired, but she took his offered hand and stood up anyway. Nutrition would bring back strength. And solitude may bring back the waves. Supressing that thought with every ounce of her will power, she closed her hand tight on the warmth of his hand long after he had let go.

          By the time they reached the common room and the table piled high with white take away boxes, Ciara could almost pretend nothing had happened. Almost pretend waves were not biting at her ankle and driving her shoulders to tense against a shiver.

          Almost pretend she felt pride for the yellowing bruises on the Widow’s face.

          Ciara had done damage; she could have completed her mission. Yet she acknowledged a level of respect to see the target sitting in her normal space on the couch and even a surprising amount of amusement at the smile Widow gave her in greeting. Between Widow and Rogers – Steve, Barnes calls his partner Steve- sat a man with a smile as warm as his sepia skin. In contrast to Steve’s baseline of trying so hard to be friendly it seemed to hurt, this newcomer seemed to radiate warmth. When Ciara sat in her normal spot between Barnes and Steve, the man actually leaned forward and gave a little wave.

          “Hey, I’m Sam.” Ciara could not help the rise of her eyebrows. No one else had actually introduced themselves to her; even Barnes had only given her his name to keep her from calling him Soldier. He waited another beat before adding, “What can I call you?”

          Blinking, she turned to Barnes disbelieving.

          “Níor inis tú dóibh?” Even sceptical, she somehow knew he would not lie to her outright.

          “Ní liomsa é,” The causal shrug did not belay the sincerity in his voice or dampen the warmth it wrapped around her.

          “Bhí a fhios agat!” Steve’s incredulous voice over her shoulder had her turning to stare. He knew Irish, of course he knew Irish…

          “Can we stop talking in Potter spells?” Clint asked through a spring roll before turning to Sam. “Is this how you feel all the time?”

          “Nah, I’m just learning your super-secret spy languages and I’m never going to tell ya.” The man’s smirk was mirrored by the Widow before he turned back to Ciara. The others were focusing on their dinner but Sam’s eyes remained on her over his lo mein.

          This doesn’t end until you want it to

          Ní liomsa é

          Barnes had known her name and yet had not even told his partner. An Scoil would say it was a tactic or that Barnes was hiding the intel from his team.

          This doesn’t end until you want it to

          But he had kept it safe for her, kept her safe.

          “Ciara.” Even as she forced the sound from her lips, she could feel the waves lapping at her again.

          Failure will not be tolerated

          Hydra demands death to guard its secrets

          “Nice to meet you Ciara.” Barnes knocked her shoulder just in time for her to process Sam’s words. Behind the wall of windows, the trees were shrouded in the early darkness of Autumn. The shadows seemed calm. No Eyes hiding within to see, no Claws to rend, no Máthair to command.

          And she was too tired to care.

 

~*~*~*~

 

“We have a transmitter breaking through.”

“Thought we had lost her.”

“Something is fighting the program.”

“Fight back. Get a report from m'iníon.”

 

~*~*~*~

 

          "Steve?” Such a gentle breeze. A soft whisper in the mists of battle. A moment of terrible calm in utter chaos. Stormy grey eyes reaching out in confusion and fear. Begging for reassurance. Reaching out…Reaching out… Reaching….Dust

          Sand exploded through the air as the black leather bag split against Steve’s invading fist.

          Dust

          Sand

          A frustrated growl pushed at the edges of the nightmare that had chased Steve from bed far too early and had stolen the warmth from his bones in the darkness of night. The need to fight the helplessness that one moment in time had embedded deep within his being had made it impossible to stay in bed. Stay in bed and ensure himself Bucky was there, whole, and safe in Steve’s arms.

          Yet three heavy bags and too much sand dust sand later, the phantoms would not leave him be. Phantoms and screams, failures and losses, rebirth and death. He promised they would fight together. He promised he was willing to pay the price. All promises he had failed to keep.

          Avoiding the sand limited his coping mechanisms to running or picking a bar fight and the large digital clock fixed in the gym wall declaring it only 0525 limited his choices even farther. Never an alien invasion when you actually need it.

          Leaving the bags where they had fallen running away, Steve left the room and climbed the stairs up to containment. He might not feel fit for human interaction, might not feel fit for much more than a fight, but routine was important. A lesson he learned the hard way early in Bucky’s recovery and a mistake he was not willing to repeat. No matter how high-tech Ciara’s room was, it still locked from the outside and she deserved what escapes he could give her.

          However, when he found the assassin curled up under a deep blue blanket, the latest “pop of color” Bucky had dotted around her room, he questioned himself again. Questioned if he was pushing his own need to save just one more person on someone who did not really need it. Questioned if he could still save anyone. Questioned what right he had to try.

          Guilt at having almost woken her before she was ready had him backing towards the door just as a pathetic whimper reached his ears.

          Turning quickly, he reassessed the scene before him. Where he had first seen her curled up in warm comfortable sleep, he now saw her tightening into a protective ball with her back hard against the wall and the blanket shielding her from view.  The noise came again, a mewing muffled by the fabric shield. Taking a step closer to look around the blanket he could see the sheen of sweat coating her tense face.

          “Ciara.” Another step forward. He raised his voice while trying to keep it gentle. “Ciara, it’s a dream.” Fear and confusion contorted her sleeping form as one hand slipped from the blanket. Reaching out.

          “Steve?”

          Without thought, Steve shook her shoulder as his voice cracked in a renewed call.

          “Ciara, is aisling í,” Unfocused eyes snapped open and he tried to smile through his relived gasp, “Maidin…”

          A pale hand shot out and wrapped around his forearm with surprising strength. Using him as leverage, Ciara pulled herself off the bed and quickly wrapped around his mass. The advantage of his surprise allowed her to push onto his shoulders and bind her legs around his neck, locking off his air with impressive efficiency.

          “Ciara,” he croaked, wrapping his hand around her ankle. “Wake…Up…” He actually struggled to get a hand between his windpipe and her leg. Her leg clamped down harder, one ankle wedged behind his shoulder to use his own body against him. It took a dizzying moment to force enough space to gasp a breath, his brain felt like it was trying to push through his skull and escape without him. Darkness spotting his vision before he finally gathered just enough air to shout.

          “Dúisigh!” The echo of his voice could not cover the crash of the attacker falling to the floor.

          Their wheezing breaths mirrored each other as Steve turned against the cot and Ciara fell against the wall. Struggling to pull in air, Steve could not help but lift his own hand to his bruised throat. Maybe it was the blood finally flowing to his brain, but he was seriously impressed by this woman.

“You’d think…. I’d learn…to let assassins…sleep…” Surprised and confused eyes snapped up to him, refocused but so absent. Deep blue eyes, not stormy grey, but still so lost before she looked away. Ciara locked her hands over the back of her neck and pushed her forehead against knees, once again hiding in herself in a protective ball.

          The hiss of a far door and the chirp of his phone ripped Steve back from that look. Of course Tony had alerted the others. Even if almost any of them would have woken the same way from a nightmare, she was still an unknown element and a threat. Steve only spared a moment to text the others an all clear, to wave them off and give him just one more chance. 

          “Hey. Really, I should have known better. I think I am going to post a sign somewhere ‘Let sleeping assassins lie.’” He wished he was joking, he really did. Between the amount of times he had found a metal hand clasped on his throat trying to interrupt a nightmare or almost found a knife in his side having stumbled on one of Clint’s nests, he should know better. Heaven forbid he ever tried to wake Natasha. “Ni féidir liom a fhoghlaim,” he tried while tapping her foot with his own.

          “Mise ach an oiread…” Hand still massaging her neck, she dropped her knees to the side to sit cross legged on the floor even as she refused to meet his eyes again.

          “Ní bhíonn saoi gan locht.” Sarah Rogers almost echoed in his words, bringing a true albeit small smile to his lips.

          “Your accent isn’t awful.” Ciara pulled her hands away from her neck and slumped back against the wall. “Still very American...But… not awful…” The laughter that bubbled out of him relaxed the tension in his shoulders, allowing him to settle truly against the cot.

          “Much to my Ma’s shame. But I guess it worked out. It wouldn’t do for Captain America to have anything but an American accent.” Her half-hearted nod against the wall had him shaking his head as he stood. “So now that I have thoroughly fucked up our morning, would you like to run or just start breakfast?” Those lost eyes refocused on his offered hand a hesitant moment before grabbing it and hauling herself up.

          “Tea. Food. Feck the run.”

Chapter Text

          What is more disturbing: the brainwashed Hydra assassin you are trying to rehab attacking your partner? Or said skilled lethal assassin looking meek and contrite as she babbles an apology as soon as you are alone?

          By dinner, Bucky could not solve that particular riddle. It was not that he blamed Ciara for lashing out during a nightmare; there was no chance she would ever even tie his own post-nightmare hit count. And Steve did have a terrible learning curve when it came to trying to be helpful but really just being a self-sacrificing pain in the ass. But he was Bucky’s self-sacrificing pain in the ass.

          Wondering, not for the first time, if this whole process had been easier from the other side, Bucky opened Ciara’s door into chaos.

          The white walls seemed wallpapered in videos and webpages, blogs and news articles, many of which squawked over each other as Ciara bounced back and forth between them like a manic pinball. Blinking away sensory overload and refocusing on the information bombarding the room, Bucky realized that all the webpages were focused on… them. More than half were dedicated to Steve as Captain America with a few more about the turnover to Sam Wilson. Rounding out the walls were Clint, Nat, Tony and even himself to various degrees of reliability and detail.

          “I see you finally asked Tony for something other than a movie….” Trying to keep the words light, Bucky took another step into the room. Standing steady and assessing the situation around him, he still struggled with so much about them plastered around. Even after coming to terms with Natasha’s intel dump after Project Insight, there was no getting used to just how much data there was to be gathered about the team. A lifetime and a half as a ghost explained why it offended him on every level to allow anyone to have this much information on those he protected. Yet the anxiety and vulnerability caused by the internet was nothing compared to the anguish boiling in her blue eyes.

          “Your Steve is Captain America,” Ciara accused as she rounded on him. Their tiger was no longer caught in the headlights of reality as she roared in distress.

“Was.” Bucky’s shoulders tensed as he planted his feet, refusing to retreat if Steve was her focus. He would protect her, he would guide her, he would help her find freedom; but Steve was everything.

          “Clint is Hawkeye. Sam is Falcon, or is he the new Captain...?” Her words were clipped and tight, flung like a blade from her wrist, but her eyes never left his. “And you.” Hurt shot through the anger building as her eyes widened just a moment. “The Avengers?” Silence seemed to fill the room even with the cacophony of webpages still squawking around them. The almost betrayed look challenged him to deny it. Challenged him to follow the same twisted script Hydra had used whenever they dared question. Deny, accuse, skew, distort and destroy reality until you are once again an obedient little asset.

          He was not them. He would not lie to her.

          “Yes.” Ever since Bucky had left Wakanda, he had been struggling to maintain any semblance of anonymity he could cling to as The Winter Soldier. Not an easy feat when teaming up and living with actual heroes; most of which could not remain unseen in an empty pitch-dark forest. Yet the wild anger and confusion burning in Ciara’s eyes proved to be anything but feigned.

          “And this?!” The broken croak of her words hinted at the true fear gnawing at her as she threw up page after page, story after story, and even that damn docudrama: The Snap. “This can’t…this can’t be real…” Even as Ciara held a pained breath, he knew she knew the truth. She just was not ready to hear it, not ready to know just how much of their reality was mutable and impermanent. Not ready to understand how the universe had lost so much at the literal snap of some fingers.  

          “How did I not know?” Even in half a whisper, the words rumbled through her as she stepped forward. “How…did I… not know?” Ciara was well within striking range, hands trembling at her side as if unable to contain the amount of information pressing into her brain. Hydra had all but lived off propaganda so it was no stretch to know they controlled the information some of their assets could access. Hell, between him and Natasha they could write a book of things not known. Still…

          “Your target was Natasha. Did your dossier have known associates?” Ciara twisted and stalked back into the anarchy of her room, eyes darting back and forth over the screens but not seeing any of them. With a shift of his hands, Bucky wiped away the technicolor turmoil, but she hardly seemed to register the change as he tried to keep her focused on the easier truth.

          “Natasha Romanoff, original Black Widow.” The words came out rushed but cold as a mission report. “Formally of the USSR’s Red Room. Master assassin, expert in martial arts and gymnastics, extensive use of weapons and stealth. Deserted the USSR, died and reborn through Hydra only to forsake the gift and turn traitor.” Bucky forced himself to listen to Hydra’s lies even if they burned in his throat, “Known base of operations highly fortified with advanced AI. Do not approach. Eliminate on sight only if alone.”

          A pregnant silence started to fill the room as she finished her anemic report. That was it? Send an operative against the Black Widow and that is all the information you give her? The Soldier had been made to obey any order and complete any mission, but even he had been given better intel.

          “Ciara.” Waiting for those wild eyes to turn back to him seemed a lifetime. “This is what Hydra does. They will give you only what they want you to have.” Either despite or because of the anger and pain coloring her eyes she seemed so young. “Just enough so they can aim their weapons.” Another growl ripped through her and she started to pace.

          “Is lann mé i lámha na Máthair.” The emotions in her roar tightened his chest.

          “And Máthair sent you here with no intel. Either she had none, which we both know isn’t true since you were able to find more intel in less than a day, or she just didn’t care what happened to you.” Or they sent you on a suicide mission.

          “Is claw amháin mé!” she downright thundered as she turned on him. Solid stalking steps brought her back within reach as her fingernails dug into her own palms. “Níl rud ar bith agam!”

          “Only if you choose to be,” Bucky struggled to keep his voice calm against her pain.  Arms spread he left himself open and lay the choice completely at her feet. “They. Don’t. Own. You.”

          Tense shoulders dropped as anger, color, and strength drained from her with disturbing speed. Ciara grabbed her own wrist as if she could not even find the strength to wrap her arms around herself. With a shiver, she tucked her chin into her shoulders as if trying to find any warms now that fury had abandoned her.

          “Níl rud ar bith agam...” The whisper broke Bucky’s heart as her blue eyes fell to the floor. “Níl…”

          “Only until you decide what you are without them. Besides….” He rested his hands gently but confidently on her shoulders, trying to tempt those blue eyes up to him. “Shíl mé gur tusa mo dheirfiúr.” The almost pleading look in her wide eyes finally stopped his heart completely.

          “Deartháir gheimhridh…” Shaking her head almost hid the watery smile but could not mask the tear that ran down her cheek. “No more painkillers…please…I say stupid things…” A chuckle eased through his chest as he pulled her tight into a hug. Too tired to even resist, Ciara ended up with her face hidden against his shoulder trying to catch her breath.

          “Too late now,” Bucky retorted as he rubbed circles into her back allowing more of the tension melted into fatigue. “Now, are we going to go eat, or are you going to move onto to cat videos?”

 

~*~*~*~

 

          The video monitor flashed across the room and Steve could almost see that smug goateed smile. If things ever calmed down, Steve might be able to acknowledge that Tony really had programmed his computer clone with disturbing accuracy. It was truly an impressive feat to program an AI well enough to allow them to miss Tony and hate his guts in equal measure.

          “That still leaves people out in the cold, Capcicle,” the AI explained dismissively.

          “Tony…” Steve pushed his fingers roughly through his already disheveled hair to keep from flinging files at the speaker Tony kept piping up from. How was it even possible that Tony was more irritating after he died? Sure, he was also right, but that hardly made his lack of tact any easier to handle.

          “Just continuing to lend my expertise…” Curling and locking his fingers into his hair did not stop the snarl from growing in his throat while Steve dropped his elbows to the table in front of him with a resounding thud. He had been at this for hours, days really, and he was no closer to a solution.

          “Stop dreaming of punching the dead guy, Cap.” The soothing aroma of deep dark coffee flowing from the mug Sam placed on the conference table next to the unmolested files kept the guilty vision from fully forming in Steve’s mind. Thank God for Sam Wilson and his instinctual Para rescue trained ability to save anyone; whether from Hydra, AIM, a computerized friend, or your own frustration.

          “Can’t exactly follow through anymore, can I Cap?” Steve pushed back as he been trying to do when Sam forgot who now carried the shield and title. Sam sank into a desk chair across the table with a huff before starting in on his own coffee.

          “And why are you arguing with Tony? I thought I was done hearing you two go at it in this lifetime.” Steve was struck with the realization that only Sam could manage to say that without sounding horribly morbid.

          “Not likely, Millennium Falcon,” Tony quipped as Steve fought the irrational desire to drop his head through the table.

          “I am trying to put together contingencies for when we inevitably get called out.”

          “You can’t try to plan for every aspect, Steve…” Sam placed his own coffee on the table with exaggerated care. While keeping his face calm and open, Sam still squared his shoulders as if readying to smother his friend with empathic pragmatism.

          “Not every aspect, no.” Steve tried to defuse the determined counselor look quickly spreading over Sam’s face. “But we will be fighting on two fronts and that requires planning.” Within a moment, the counselor transformed into the resolute soldier who had made it so easy to hand over the shield. Well, not easy, but easier knowing it was going to a good man who could do what needed to be done.

          “Two fronts? What kind of intel are you looking at…” A Truly disturbing amount of chaos threaded through the files in front of him. From governments still trying to dig out from under Thanos and amoral strongmen trying to take advantage of power vacuums. Steve was trying to keep the Avengers on the edges, he refused to allow them to become an army or a police force as the world needed to recover what normality it can. Not that he was able to ignore the calls from governments informing him the Avengers were in dereliction of duty for not stepping in, or stepping in too much, or back the wrong side, or…or…

          “Sketchy at best but that’s not the point.” Steve marched on, “The other front is here at home.”

          “Steve…” The warning in Sam’s voice had Steve sitting up and shaking his head.

          “What? Ciara isn’t stable. I want her to get better just as much as anyone else, but she has attacked Nat twice…” Sam raised an eyebrow and sat back in his chair hands still resting around the soothing warmth of his coffee mug.

          “Bucky shot at you how many times before…”

          “That was different,” Steve snapped and immediately regretted it. Sam was not wrong. Hell, The Soldier had accomplished the rare feat of putting Steve in the hospital. But still, it was Bucky…

          “How?” Sam pushed and Steve bit back the obvious answer that Bucky had him, had someone to come back to.

          “Bucky left on his own. Bucky chose to walk away from Hydra and reclaim his own life. Ciara hasn’t made that choice.” Sam bit the inside of his cheek and watched a wide-eyed Steve push back from his chair. Steve paced like he could find the answers hiding somewhere in the crevices of the conference room, his shoulders hiked up brushing his ears.

          “You’re not wrong, Steve,” Sam conceded just loud enough to stop Steve in his tracks. “Hey, you know as well as I do that we can’t help anyone who does not want our help. But Barnes seems to be making great progress with her…” A wave of protective fear crashed against a wall of guilt a mile thick within Steve’s chest. Bucky really was doing well with Ciara; almost every breakthrough she had made had been with Bucky. Yet Ciara seemed unwilling or unable to relinquish her Hydra bestowed mission. It seemed every time Natasha was alone with Ciara, Ciara tried to complete that mission no matter the cost to herself. Would that drive to obey her programming overrun what fondness she had developed for Buck?

          “I can’t leave her here alone. Even with Tony’s ever-present charm…”

          “Wow, Cap, I am touched!”

          “…but can I leave one person alone with a trained assassin? And if I can, who gets left off the missions? Who wants to deal with an assassin on their own?...” Frustration churned his gut as solutions withered and died before his eyes.

          “Steve, even the best commanders can’t control everything,” Sam chided, just harsh enough to stop Steve’s spiral. “You know the team; you know we’ve got your back as much as you have ours.” Steve dropped into his chair again, trying to shake the aggravation out of his head.

          “When I stepped off the field, I thought it would make it easier to see the big picture. See all the parts we try to balance. Yet now it seems there are too many parts to see and absolutely no way to balance them.” Sam’s snort actually brought Steve’s head up sharply.

          “Dude, this is why I got out. I never wanted to be a commander, I never wanted to be more than a flyer.” Sam shook his head and leaned forward, resting his forearms on the table. “But man, look. We all knew what we signed up for. Ok, that’s not true, no one can truly know what the fuck we do…” Steve chortled, “…but we are all still here. When the call comes, you will know who has to go and who needs to stay.”

          A deep breath and force of will pushed Steve’s shoulders back down from his ears. Sam was right. Sam was usually right. Steve could not plan for every eventuality; there were too many pieces on the board, and it did not seem to be their move. That did not mean he could stop worrying about his team.

          “Besides…If we disagree, we could not hold back from letting you know if we tried.” A startled but full-throated laugh eased the knot in Steve’s chest.

 

~*~*~*~

 

          For two nights, Ciara chose cat videos over dinner. Cat videos and strange cartoons and a show with overly enthusiastic gay men who seemed to want to help everyone.

          For two mornings she curled up tight under her growing collection of different coloured warm fuzzy blankets Barnes had found for her and pretended not to wake up when she heard Steve enter the room. Apparently the captain could learn, because he did not reach out to wake her and would leave her be when unanswered.

          For over forty-eight hours they let her hide away in the small part of the world she could claim as her own.

          So on day three, after avoiding another disgustingly early wakeup call from the former Captain America she fully believed she would be left to her own devices. Left alone with the worlds on a collision course for each other and destined to use her as the battlefield.  

          Scattered glass, twisted metal of a groaning bus skeleton surrounding the fragile form of a young girl. Calm blue eyes looking around at broken bodies through the mist of petrol and sirens.

          "Iníon.” A petite woman walked over the carnage as if it was her own parlour. Pale brown hair pulled up into a tight plait away from a guarded but compassionate face that seemed to take in only the little girl in the chaos. “Teacht amach anois.”

          “Ní tusa mo mháthair,” The little one’s voice sung unflustered by the glass and blood splattered against her cheeks.

          "Táim anois,” A single outstretched hand reached out expectantly as if the woman knew she would not be denied. The girl spared a single empty look at the bodies buried under the ash and debris beside her before turning and taking that hand.

          Máthair demanded loyalty and obedience without question; something Ciara had given freely. Máthair nourished her strength, trained her mind and body to give shape to Ciara’s own power. Sharpened her focus to cut through the chaos of the world to see the simple beauty of Hydra’s dream. Peace through strength and order.  They had trained her to be one of Máthair’s Claws, one of the strong to keep the masses in line and protect them from themselves. A tool guided to prune the corrupted limbs from society before they could poison the world around them.

          Corruption like the traitor the Black Widow. If people chose to turn their backs on the gifts Hydra bestowed on them, those gifts must be taken back. Widow was given a second life. She had died and been reborn and given a chance to return and help save the world. Yet she had chosen to continue being an agent of chaos. That could not be allowed to stand. Traitors must be eliminated.  

          You cannot be a traitor to your slavers.

          Hydra stole us from the world.

          No one will hurt you here.

         Barnes had been true to his word. No harm had come to her except at her own hand.

          Or does programming you to do this really look like they are loyal to you?

          The shine of her blade caught her eye from across the room. Somehow, she had managed to keep the blade from tasting blood for almost two weeks, but it had been a near thing. The second night she had woken to Barnes’ metal hand tight around her wrist, the blade millimetres from her flesh. He had needed to guide her through the water again with gentle words and a firm hand. Ciara could have sworn she had collapsed on the floor that night, unable to move once her head crested the waves, yet she had found herself safely in her bed buried under her favourite deep blue blanket.

          The next morning it had taken her three tries to ask Tony if there was any way he could wake her if she left her bed at night. In his normal snarky slag, the unseen warden had promised he could wake the dead.

          Blasting the lights on had been a massive misfire as it simply pushed her from the trance right into a panic attack; hardly an improvement or conducive to sleep.

          Tony had tried some rock music that absolutely woke her up even if the heavy percussion had her spinning around the room looking for gunmen. While an improvement, it still ended all possibility of sleep for the rest of the night and there was only so many episodes of Archer to watch.

          It took two more nights for Tony to find the right balance. As the floating melody of Leis an Lurgainn penetrated her fog, Ciara had been surprised to find herself only halfway across the room. She had spent a half hour bent over and laughing as tears ran down her cheeks before she had crawled back into bed and drifted into the dreamlessness of exhaustion.

          The next morning, she had woken up before Steve gathered her for their run, cold and sweating before she had to run to the bathroom to empty her stomach. Who was she to deny Máthair her confession?

          These battles tried to rage over cat videos and trad music, cooking tips and Queer Eye episodes. Two days of trying and failing to drown out the voices arguing who she should be and the fabric of the world.  So, it was not surprising that she almost did not hear the hiss of the door opening later that morning.

          What was surprising was finding Clint standing there, arms crossed over his chest and a lopsided a grin plastered on his face.

          “Dog or sharp pointy things?” Ciara blinked up at his words and waved away the drowning noise, sure she had misheard him.

          “What?” His lopsided grin widened as he spread his arms.

          “Dog….” Clint lifted one hand as if weighing fruit. “Or sharp pointy things….?” The other hand lifted the invisible weight before he was offering them both to her.

          “Sharp pointies?” She asked, raising an eyebrow, and starting to wonder which of them had lost the plot.

          “I knew you were one of us.” Clint seemed very satisfied as he swept his arm back to motion her forward. It was only as she passed him into the hallway that she realized there had been no option to stay and hide. Though he chatted insistently on the way down past the gym, she truly could not find a logical pattern, or sentence structure, to his words and just let them flow over her.

          It was not until they were entombed in the comforting cold of concrete and rebar that made up the two-story target range did he seem to quiet. Starting at the door and running along the back wall was a long metal work bench, lockers running along the underside with biometric locks embedded in the doors. Along the other side, past the classic low bench expected in target ranges was an empty space that seemed to disappear into darkness before it ended.

          “Welcome… to paradise.” Clint looked as if he had just transported them to the land of Fairy and was presenting her with every-lasting life. “Now, let’s get some sharp things…” He truly skipped down the range to weapons he had obviously laid out ahead of time. Two black unstrung recurve bows lay carefully beside a truly massive pile of arrows with bright purple and black fletching. They were well made weapons, expectantly maintained and freshly waxed. The arrows new or newly fletched and shining with potential. 

          “Figured learning new gear was a good way to get out of your room a bit…” Clint picked up one of the bows reverently and was holding it out as if to show her different parts. It was too much to pass up…far too good to be true. She had been held up in her own head too long. Surprise passed over his face as she gave into temptation and snatched the bow from his fingers, one his hands flying towards the back of his belt and the comfort of a blade.

          A smirk touched Ciara’s lips, a mischievous voice suggested seeing just how quickly the archer could pull that blade. Yet the bow in her hand really was well made, its weight too seductive to ignore. With practiced grace she braced the tip of the bow against her foot and stepped between the bow and string. Bracing the grip against her leg, she pulled the upper limb back and slipped the string into its notch. Before his hand fell away from the blade on his back, she presented back the weapon with one raised eyebrow and a suppressed chuckle.

          “Alright then…” Clint recovered quickly, a grin splitting his face once more as he took the bow for inspection. “Not so new gear. Just means we can have a bit of fun.” She tried to resist, she really did, but her eyes rolled on their own accord when he handed her back the bow.

          “Pretty bold to hand me a weapon,” Ciara warned as he strung his own bow.

          “If you can take me out with a bow, you earned it,” he countered as he moved a pile of arrows to the low bench before the range. “Besides, ask anyone. I am the world’s worst decision maker.” The punch of a button on one of the dividers along the bench forced a set of targets to descend from a track along the ceiling only about 15 metres from the line. At Barton’s inquisitive look, Ciara gathered another handful of arrows and placed them in the cubical next to his, only a pane of glass between them.

          “Warm up, then we can have some fun.” He instructed with the wave of a hand towards the targets. It really was a bad idea to put a deadly weapon in the hands of an assassin, even if you were not the primary targets. She knew it would only take a moment to grab an arrow, vault around the divider, and implant it deep in his spine. Quick, easy, silent.

         Yet the bow in her hand really was a comforting weight, all tense potential looking for a firm hand to fulfil its purpose. Pale fingers brushed against the purple fletching of an arrow and trailed along to the hard knock. With a soft click, the arrow found its place on the bow string, waiting as it stared down the target far too close to be a challenge; far too close to be anything but tempting.

          Deep breath

          Tense

          Aim

          Release

          A soft gasp passed her lips as the arrow pierced the foam target and embedded itself deep in the red ring. Eyes half closed as she knocked another arrow, the target slipping back a few more metres before she pulled the bow to her chest and lined up another shot.

          Deep breath – shoulders lower

          Tense – eyes clear

          Aim – heart rate steady

          Release – a satisfied hum

          Before long she was well warmed up and the targets had moved back to 90 metres. Somewhere along the line, the tension in her shoulders had melted into the pull of the bow string and her focus crystalized to the shiny tip of the arrow before it joined the grouping growing towards the centre of the target.

          “Ready for some real fun?” The bow snapped into aim at the voice jumping around the divider as she remembered she was not alone.

Chapter Text

           The entire plan had just been to get Ciara out of her room. Hell, even if she had actually tried to bash him over the head with the bow or stab him with an arrow, Clint would have considered the day a success. He had earned his title as world’s worst decision maker after all.

           Yet when he had found her curled up in a pile of brightly colored blankets completely ignoring video instructions on how to make molten lava cake with What’s The Rumpus blasting in the background, he knew he would carry her out kicking and screaming if it meant getting her out of her head.

           As much as Clint enjoyed teaching people to respect the bow, finding the club’s Irish representative was well versed enough to not only string the bow but group her shots at almost 300 feet was truly exciting. Even Barnes and Natasha, as amazing and skilled as they were, had been complete novices with a bow. A fact he could not help but poke them about it from time to time. Ciara truly seemed to relax into the simple rhythm of archery. The calm contentment evident on her face made him hesitate to interrupt, but he wanted them to have some fun too.

           “Ready for some real fun?” Surprisingly, Clint had the presence of mind to wait until after her last shot to speak. So when she turned with the bow still raised, blue eyes wide before they focused on him, all he could do was smirk. Trying to cover her surprise and (hopingly momentary) laps in range safety, Ciara rolled her eyes and dropped the bow down to her side.  

           “Dryshite, if you aren’t having fun you need to find yourself a new line of work.” Clint felt his eyebrows jump before he burst out laughing.

           “Shit! Never let me introduce you to Katie-Kate. I’d just never survive it.” Between Ciara telling him he was no fun and Katie reminding him how sad his life was, maybe he should start to take a hint. But why do that when you could just shoot things? “But now that I have to prove I can be fun…”

           Clint hit a keypad on the divider with unrestrained glee. Between the sniper nests hidden around the upper half of the room and the expansive catalog of simulations Tony had programmed into the shooting range, this place really was his paradise. A new set of targets dropped from the sky like mana from heaven, but they refused to settle.  Unwilling to pique their assassin’s interest too much, Clint had opted for simple circular targets that would dance in an array of seemingly random patterns, but they had their own flair.

           Ciara watched the targets dance a moment before she realized they would not stop moving; a small smile lifted the corner of her mouth. Raising her bow again and drawing the string, she followed a target a moment, calculating, waiting, release. The target exploded in red sparks to match the ring she had hit; a startled giggle escaped her lips before she could hide it. Clint could not help but smile at the color rising to her cheeks or the sparkle she tried to hide in her narrowing eyes as she reluctantly turned back to him.

           “Alright… not so much a Dryshite,” she conceded as she lined up another shot. “Fós ina leathcheann.” She whispered before the release of a second arrow brought a mix of red and yellow sparks flying through the air.

           “Can’t argue with you there,” Clint responded with a shake of his head, lining up his own shot. “Even if I understood it.” A snort accompanied a pair of matched arrows, both birthing yellow sparks in their wake. “How many languages do you speak anyway?”

           “Enough,” Ciara deflected without breaking her rhythm. “You?” Shrugging away the expected dodge, Clint released another arrow.

           “Five or six depending on how you count it,” he answered easily enough.

           “How does that work?” Clint could not miss the note of actual curiosity Ciara tried to hide behind another wave of golden sparks.

           “Some say they use sign, others say speak, I say I stumble, but that’s just me.” No use adding how rusty he had been when he had to relearn sign. When one has to learn sign because their father beat them so hard they lose their hearing, they tend not to pick it back up without a damn good reason and a shit ton of whining.

           “Never learned American Sign, ISL is handy in the field though…” The comment seemed off handed, her bow poised for another shot even as Clint almost dropped his arrow. “Helpful to pass intel without giving away your location.” Natasha had said the same thing, resorting to almost exclusively communicating in sign while in the field as some sadistic ploy to get him to practice more; but that was Nat. She would not let him wallow no matter how pissed off at the world she was.

           What reason would Ciara have to cut off his pity party? From a purely tactical point of view, keeping him distracted by his own turmoil would allow her an opening to her target. Making him feel useless could drive him off guard and leave the others a bit less defended. Yet here she was talking about his sign as if it was an advantage in the field instead of a liability. As if she used sign all the time and thought nothing of it.

           After a few more bursts of color unaccompanied, Ciara turned to him with a raised eyebrow and rested her bow against her shoulder while flapping her hands back and forth against each other. 

           “What?” she repeated vocally and he realized he had been staring. Clint flattened his hands palm up about six inches from his chest and shook them side to side, repeating the same question in ASL.

           “Guess I have a new language to work on, I’ll put it on the list after Irish.” With a roll of her eyes, she was her putting the bow down and leaning against the low table.

           “Is as Éirinn mé. But why on God’s green earth would you ever learn Irish?” Ciara asked, shaking her head and crossing her arms over her chest. Clint lined up another shot but could not help but see the self-disparaging look in her eyes.

           “Because one can never have enough languages, even if I suck at half of them.” He released the arrow before turning back to her, his bow resting between his boot and chest. “And, you’re Éirinn.” Wide eyes looked up at him for the briefest of moments and he could not help remember Natasha all those years ago. Yearning for any connection but so conditioned to reject kindness as weakness they would rather bite off their own arm than reach out.

           “And here I thought it couldn’t get worse than Barnes’ accent,” Ciara muttered and turned back to the table before she realized she was out of arrows.

           “Ah come on, it can’t be that bad,” Clint countered, picking up his own bow and wandering back to the worktable to clean up his gear. While she followed him and unstrung her bow with careful precision, she seemed to struggle with her words again.

           “No, it’s bad,” Ciara started confidently as she lay the inert bow down on the table. “It’s really bad… but … Barnes isn’t…” She added almost as a whisper. Clint watched her a moment as he locked away the bows and realized he was watching her fully accept that fact. It had been obvious from the start that Barnes was the one she would follow; but that could have been as much about fear of The Soldier as anything else.

           “Nah, Barnes is a pretty good guy.” The hiss of the door on the other side of the room brought a mischievous grin to Clint’s face before he added a little louder, “And he’s the second-best sniper on the team.” Ciara actually looked affronted a moment, opening her mouth to challenge him before a voice sounded behind her.

           “Last time I checked, Barton…” The irritation melted from Ciara’s face and she even turned disturbingly sheepish for a woman of her skills. “…I can still blow your arrows out of the sky, literally.” Clint could see the split second of hesitation as Barnes came up behind Ciara. The past few days had bothered the former soldier, torn between giving Ciara her space and not wanting to leave her alone. Every day he had tried to coax her out of her room and bring her back into the fold, but she had been too locked in her own mind. Barnes had said it was fine, said he understood, said it would just take time; but they could all see it hurt him.

           Before Ciara could turn to see his hesitation, Barnes plastered a friendly smile on his face and lightly wrapped his arm around her shoulders.

           “Conas a fuair tú anseo?” Barnes smiled down at her affectionately as if they had known each other for years. Clint did not know what he was saying, but the tone was warm and Ciara was able to give a shy smile.

           “A locht,” She gestured towards Clint and seemed to think it was unfair to point in a language he did not understand. “He offered a dog or sharp pointy things.” Barnes released a full throated laughed as Clint shrugged his shoulders.

           “I have Lucky, bows, and coffee,” Clint countered. “As I still hold, our slayer here is a heathen in the ways of caffeine…” With the opportunity wide open, Barnes punched his shoulder and Ciara actually looked touched for a moment that Barnes defended her. “ow! it limited my choices.”

           “Well then you go get some coffee, and we will go enjoy a good cup of tea like civilized people.” The smile Barnes elicited on Ciara’s face almost made it worth the blasphemy.

           “Aw…coffee…no…” But Clint really could not complain as Barnes guided Ciara out of the range and back into the world.

 

~*~*~*~

 

           “Your hiding places are getting predictable.” The comforting hint of Wanda’s accent allowed Natasha’s shoulders to drop as the witch plopped herself in the shade of the HVAC unit and pressed up against Natasha.  

           For a week, Natasha had been avoiding their struggling charge. Maybe not avoiding, she still went to dinner. And most mornings she was there when Ciara came in with Rogers from their resumed morning run. But she made the solidly tactical choice to never be alone with the woman as it always seems to end in disaster. The first time Ciara had ended up bleeding all over her cell was the night Natasha had escorted her back. Well, escorted her and tried to taunt her into attacking.

           Even when Nat tried to be supportive, when she tried to offer the newest member of the world’s shittiest club some words of experience, James had been forced to shoot her. So, it truly was better for Ciara that Natasha was curled up in the shade on the roof. Which is exactly what she had intended to tell Wanda.

           “Can’t be predictable if I am not hiding,” Natasha countered. She could not bring herself to move away from the friendly warmth beside her even as the other woman snorted at her.

           “I do not think even you believed that lie.” True as that may be, Natasha was not about to admit it out loud. The team was healing, coalescing around this newcomer; and she was still on the outside. James had basically adopted Ciara and seemed to make it his life’s mission to show her there was a life after Hydra. A worthy goal maybe, even if it was one the world kept proving false.

           Steve had thrown himself into this project with as much fervor as he did anything that pressed upon his need for justice. The combination of justice, his need for Bucky to be happy, and breaking Hydra wherever he could made Ciara a uniquely intoxicating victim.

           And Clint? Even if the woman had not proven she knew her way around a bow, Barton could never resist helping a damsel in distress. He was a hopeless romantic hiding a larger heart and sharp brain behind a walking dumpster fire.

           Natasha held up the paperback dribble on her lap as she forced her attention to her company and ignore the tightness in her own chest.

           “See, I have a book and everything.”

           “And have you actually been reading it?” Wanda raised a knowing eyebrow causing Natasha to drop the book with a less than satisfying crunch onto the roof.

           “I said I had a book. Not that I was reading it.” The comforting weight of Wanda’s head resting against her shoulder prevented Natasha from being annoyed at being found out.

           “Come spend some time at the summer house,” Wanda suggested gently. “Bruce is cooking massive amounts of food and Sharon came up from DC…” For a glorious minute Natasha imagined it. Spending an evening with Sharon’s quick wit and Bruce’s herculean food.  

           The summer house, situated at the far end of the compound, was proof that Tony Stark learned his lessons best through mistakes and regret. The oversized log cabin was a testament that, as much as he wanted his family altogether, sometimes overpowered adrenaline junkies just need to get out of each other’s hair. Personally, she was convinced Tony had started construction on it soon after the Sakovia Accords; as soon as he realized how much he missed everyone.

           “I can’t.” The words were out before the fantasy had truly left Natasha, the idea of not showing up at dinner constricting her ribs. It was not that the boys could not handle the recovering assassin for one night. Hell, the boys had been handling it better than she had for weeks now. Yet she seemed to be the only one to remember the glaring truth that not everyone accepts their promotion to former brainwashed assassin; not everyone wanted to be saved.

           “Let Sam have a few days on duty. Even you need a break,” Wanda pressed, jostling her shoulder. Natasha could admit her friend was right, that if she was healthy and thinking straight, she would have found a way out long ago. Yet she could not do it. For better or worst this was what she had. The world’s shittiest club was mercifully small and if they were going to survive another member, they had to be stronger together.

Not that any of this was making her feel particularly strong or together.

           “I’ll come by for lunch sometime soon. I just…” For once, Natasha found herself at a loss for words. Wanda smiled and shook her head saving Natasha from trying to find the words.

           “Just remember we are here too,” She noted. “We’d come visit but…” Natasha finally smiled and shook her head.

           “But we don’t want to scare the would-be assassin. Bruce is big and green and you are…. well, you.” The foxy red spark in the Witch’s dark eyes released a cackle from the Widow.

 

~*~*~*~

 

           Groaning and blinking away sleep, Ciara sat up in bed as she cradled the back of her neck. It seemed that more often than not she was waking up with a wrench in her neck that no amount of heat, pressure, or time seemed to ease. She already knew something was wrong, of course she did. It had taken far too long to heal after her last attempt at the target; far longer than any claw should allow.

           I will give you Hydra’s gifts mo iníonacha. All I ask for is your loyalty.

           Hydra had made her strong, had made her resilient, had made her a weapon; but failure would not be tolerated. It would get worse. One day Hydra’s gifts would flee from her and that would be the day she would feel the Claws. Her time had ended long ago; Máthair would not be denied.

           Yet the solid weight of reality had already settled in her stomach, an acceptance that her time may be limited but not….bad.

           Soon, Steve would come to run with her. Maybe she would go to the range with Clint today or train some with Barnes. There would be films and shows on the tellie, cat videos, and music. Tonight, she would eat with them all and even find it peevishly comforting when Widow smirked at her.

           The Eyes see

           The Claws rend

           Máthair will not be denied

           But she will enjoy it while it lasts.

Chapter Text

          Bucky knew he should have gone with the team.

          “Greatest sniper in the world, but your aim is shite, Barnes.”

          “Nope, just cover fire for…”

          “Póg mo thóin!” Bucky’s eyes watered as he swallowed laughter and forced his focus on the task at hand. After all, it was absolutely mission-critical to take advantage of the banana peel Ciara’s little avatar was spinning out on if he was to cross the finish line first.

          “Situational awareness not crossing over to Mario Kart, Ciara?” He jibed as his little Yoshi was dancing upon the podium above her Donkey Kong.

          “Feckin gobshite! How do you consider this training?” she countered, dropping the control on the table and slinking back to the kitchen to put the kettle on.

          “Just because you can’t remember the terrain…”

          “Sure look, THAT is not terrain.”

          Bucky really should have gone with the team. Reports were Hydra, or at least one of the many heads, was looking to reacquire The Soldier again. It was a cycle he knew would play out for the rest of his existence: they would remember he was still out there, they would try to track him down, come up with a ridiculous plan, get their asses handed to them, and leave him alone for a while. Not like he had a choice in the matter, but he would play this game again and again because the time he was free was too precious to surrender.

          The only reason he was not with the team, the only reason he was not fighting his own battle today, was the whisper that Hydra had found more code words. Little nothings whispered in his ear that could shatter his will and return him to the mindless machine they yearned to control. Bucky did not doubt Shuri had cleaned out the code words in his brain; the princess had done her job well. Yet he had long since accepted that logic could not counter the primal fear of losing control.  He had accepted, through one too many flashbacks at less than opportune moments, when not to go into the field.

          No matter what Captain Dumbass had to say about it.

          Alright, that was not the only reason he had stayed behind, but Steve’s hard-headedness was nothing new. It used to be that Steve did not question when Bucky wanted to stay on the sidelines. Ever since that night in a dark pub during the war when Steve had asked if Bucky would join the Commandos, the choice had always been his own. In fact, there was a point after leaving Wakanda that Steve had even encouraged him to find his own peace; to take time to explore life beyond the battlefield. Even if Bucky still could not find ‘beyond the battlefield.’

          This morning had been the one and only time Steve had almost literally pushed a gun into Bucky’s hand; an action that did not end well for either of them.

          Ciara fell back into the couch, expertly cradling a cup of tea so she did not lose a drop even as she glared at him. Bucky knew exactly why Steve had wanted him in the field; she was sitting beside him on the couch. The captain did not trust Ciara. But Steve, mercifully, was not a member of The Club and simply could not understand. Members have to stick together. Period. End of story.

          “If you want to stop getting your ass kicked, we can change games. Tennis? Bowling? Maybe all that work with Barton will actually transfer to archery…” The teasing fizzled as Bucky watched Ciara’s fingers cling to her mug hard enough for the ceramic to crack, shoulders tensing and her neck seeming to collapse into herself. “Ciara?” Even if he tried to deny it, his chest clenched as she flinched away from his comforting hand.

          “Nah…you are not getting out of a rematch…” She struggled to keep her voice light even as she dug her tea-warmed fingers into her cervical spine. “Now that I know what kind of cheat you are…”

          “Cheat?!”

          “Sorry to interrupt the lovefest, my dynamic duo…” Tony cut in before Bucky had a chance to defend himself. “…But we have a party coming.” Bucky rolled his eyes at the camera in the corner incredulously.

          “Gotta be more specific there, Tony. Are we talking cranky politicians looking to blow hot air or ravaging aliens?” Bucky knew he should have gone with the team, let Steve deal with blowhard baby-kissers. If the punk wanted to continue pretending that he had retired from the field…

          The distinctive concussive blast of a far-off explosion shattered his thought.

          “Tony?!” Bucky flew off the couch and stalked over to the wall-length windows, multiple flashes of blinding light ripping through the compound’s perimeter.

          “Tá mo chuid ama suas….” Fear dripped venomously from Ciara’s every word even as cruel acceptance dropped her shoulders and spurred him forward.

          “Not yet,” he growled, hitting a panel in the wall between the sitting area and kitchen revealing what should have been a fully stocked weapons rack. Except since their little family dinners, they had removed the weapons from the common room stashes and racks.

          The ground beneath his feet roiled, cutting off a string of curses before it could migrate from his brain to his tongue. A shockwave of power just far away to press against them but not knock them over yet.

          “Tony! Talk to me!”

          The piercing screech that invaded from Tony’s speakers stabbed against eardrums. It forced his hands up by instinct as the sound tried to liquefy everything in his skull. Grabbing the one knife he had allowed himself to start carrying again out of his boot, Bucky moved closer to Ciara. She was struggling to stay on her feet as another blast rocked through the building but he pressed it into her hand.

          “We have to…” His metal arm wrapped around her forearm and pulled her to her feet just as a third blast pressed them back against the wall. “…Move!” Scrambling to get his feet under him, he all but threw Ciara away from the blasts and back through the kitchen at the back of the building. Get through the kitchen, down the hall, stairs out and to the garage. He would contact the team from the car and get them somewhere safe to wait for backup; he would keep her safe. He would…

          Time stopped, air froze, and sound fell away as Ciara stopped dead. The hallway before them was short enough that Bucky could see the stairwell to the garage over Ciara’s head. Yet between them and the reinforced door to safety stood a petite, unassuming matronly woman. Stark white hair pulled back into a tight braid fell over the shoulder of a dark ash, tailored blazer, making it look as if she was late for a meeting in the city, not striking fear into the heart of an assassin.

          “Feicim mo iníon mé. Tá sé in am teacht abhaile.” Even softly spoken, those honeyed words drained the color from the girl’s cheeks.

          “Ciara…” Bucky kept the invader in his periphery but turned his attention to his struggling charge. Even with the chaos around them, her shuddering breaths and wide eyes clawed at his chest. One hand gripped his combat knife so lightly it might slip through her fingers, the other pressing into the base of her skull hard enough to bruise, yet she could not seem to step away. Where had his tiger gone?

          “You will leave now.” Pulling her frozen form behind him, Bucky forced his attention back to the invader as a protective fury ripped through him. The red-hot rage boiled through him so forcefully it was hard to grasp at the calm of The Soldier.

          “Ah, Soldier. Very kind of you to care for my wayward daughter.” An icy smile broke out over the older woman’s face in a mockery of caring as she looked up at him. The disturbingly relaxed demeanor of the woman sickened the former assassin. “It will be such a pleasure to have you join us as well.”

          Bucky could sense more coming up behind them but kept his eyes on the woman and his flesh hand wrapped tight around Ciara’s forearm.  

          “There is no one here for you. If you care to live, leave now.” Clenching his vibranium fist tight at his side, he counted off the bodies around him. The old woman would not be a physical threat; it would be the six who had fanned out behind them that would fall first.

          “I will take my daughter home, Soldier.” The air shifted just enough for Bucky to push Ciara to the floor before the gun went off behind them. As the bullet cracked through the air, The Soldier leapt at the shooter. Metal fist around the gun barrel. Gun crunched into a useless chunk of metal. Pull back and a bone crunching blow to the attacker’s skull.

          As if given permission, or simply realizing attacking one at a time would do no good, the remaining five surrounded him like wolves surrounding a bear. The women pounced as a single unit, but The Winter Soldier had trained girls in the Red Room and the other Soldiers long before he remembered his name; these invaders would not take what was his.

          Sweeping legs and dodging knives. Grabbing wrists and breaking ribs. Flashes of metal and flesh. Blood, sweat, groans, and screams. Five motionless bodies crumbled at his feet.

          Blazing grey eyes turned back to the older woman with an impassive fury. How dare she come to their home, damage what peace they had strived so hard for, and threaten one of their own? Feline grace had him stalking out of the carnage and past Ciara heaped on the floor with her hands wrapped protectively over her skull. He refused to stop until he was looking down on the invader with the cold lethal power of 70 years of slaughter.

          “There is no one here for you.” The snarl of his words did not disturb the confident serenity of the woman. “She is not yours.”

          A slow smile had the gall to spread over the older woman’s thin lips.

          “Oh?” The calm, almost amused word shattered into a sharp, shearing pain penetrating just below Bucky’s skull and exploding in blinding agony. Frozen water flowed down his spine and raged out into torrents through his limbs, ripping out feeling and strength as it pummelled against his nerves. The floor raced up towards him, knees and arms crashing into concrete with a deafening thud and sickening numbness. Dread flowed where sensation ebbed, his heart thundering in his ears as he desperately tried to regain command of his own limbs. Panic and oblivion fought for space in his brain as grey eyes snapped back and forth over a narrowing field of vision.

          “Ciara!” She could still escape if he could just see her, if he could just get her to move.  The wail of his voice was rewarded as Ciara stumbled into view, one hand still clinging desperately to the base of her skull.

          “Ciara, run!” Bucky implored her as his traitorous body refused to move

          Knees crashed to the floor, a pale face leaned forward and her hands dropped heavily to her bent knees gasping for air.

          A withered hand reached out and caressed her frozen cheek so softly Ciara leaned into the touch and closed those blue eyes.

          “Tá sé in am teacht abhaile m’iníon.” The words were gentle but firm as the invader gripped the younger woman’s chin a moment. As Ciara’s head fell forward, her mahogany braid fell across her cheek, obscuring her eyes but unable to mask the words falling clear from her lips.

          “Yes, Máthair, Tiocfaidh mé abhaile.”

 

~*~*~*~

 

          The alert had ripped through their coms just as the team had finished sweeping the Hydra base in Afghanistan. The base had been gathering dust for long enough that some industrious sadists of Hydra had transformed the underground structure into a clusterfuck of ambush points and automatic defense systems. Just enough personnel to tease the possibility that they were guarding intel or whoever was after James. Just enough of a challenge that Natasha would have enjoyed it if not for the risk to her team.

          The very definition of a distracting trap, and she fell for it. Fell for it just long enough for history to repeat itself.

          Even with the Quinjet fully throttled and racing across the ocean, it still took too long to get back. Hour one had Sam kept trying to keep Rogers from badgering Clint into pushing the jet past its limits to get back even a minute earlier.

          By hour three, Wanda had to threaten to put both Rogers and Sam under if they did not sit down and stop howling at each other.

          Hour five, Natasha and Bruce had finally re-established enough contact with Tony’s home systems to start to assess the damage. It had not been easy. Whoever, and more likely a few whoevers, had hacked them had been at it a while and had managed to lock the AI into himself. Using his own systems against them, from audio attacks to mirroring their security feeds to know just where their prize was hiding.

          They had to wait until a half-hour out for Natasha to repair the skipping and fragmented security footage enough to see how badly they had screwed up.

          Explosions rocking the compound, blasting out peripheral cameras.

          A knife into Ciara’s hand.

          James shielding Ciara from an old woman.

          Ciara unfolding from the floor.

          Ciara plunging the blade deep into the base of James’ skull.

          James collapsing.

          Ciara on her knees before the old woman.

          A new flock of invaders carrying away James’ body with Ciara trailing…

          The monitor exploded in a flash of sparks as Rogers threw his fist through the image. The sparks drifted and died on the floor of the Quinjet like snow, bringing a moment of unsettling stillness that left a space for their utter failure to crystalize within Natasha’s mind. They had been lured away to allow their home to be attacked. Lured away by bad intel so that Hydra could reclaim their asset and…James. The image of James on the floor…not moving…being carried away…

          Widows do not growl, they do not roar, they turn their rage into cold marble. The world would break before a Widow’s rage. James was alive, Hydra wanted to force the Soldier back into a collar and onto their leash, so he was alive. And Ciara? She had made it clear she was not ready to let go of her own leash. Some operatives would never be strong enough to shoulder free will and responsibility.

          Returning was a choice, and choices have consequences.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

           A soft withered hand

           Blinding searing pain

           An insistent whisper

           All-encompassing darkness              

           Ciara reclaimed consciousness in excruciatingly slow drips of nausea and a steady throbbing that made her want to burrow herself under a pile of blankets and hide from the world.

           A desire that uncovered a new level of confusion as she found herself shivering under her thin sheet in a more than familiar damp. A flash of white faded into grey concrete walls covered in spiderweb cracks she had grown up memorizing from her thin cot. An unexpected tightness blossoming to her chest. If she was back in the dorm, back at Scoil Naomh Ita, her mission had been completed and Máthair had retrieved her Claw; Ciara was done.

           Yet as she forced herself to sit on the edge of the metal frame, Ciara could not reach for the pride of a mission accomplished; or even remember how she had been retrieved. Her mind grasped at memories of trees and the sun, a dog and arrows, running, tumbling, screaming, blood…

           “Claw.” Ciara blinked surprisingly wet eyes up at the young iníon before her, taking in the soft black hair pulled back in a simple plait to keep it out of her pale face. The girl looked like any other primary school students in her simple green and black uniform. Skirt perfectly pleated, jumper plain and rough, crisp black collar shielding her throat, no different than so many school children who populated this city. Yet there was no hiding the iníon in those cold, brown eyes. Their matron knew her children, could find them, and would not be denied.

           “Máthair expects you.” While the girl’s voice still held the music of youth, there was no doubt she was delivering a command.

           Forcing her shaky legs into obedient steps, Ciara followed the girl out of the dorm and down the bare cinder block hall, the rough wooden floor echoing under her booted feet. Down and down two flights of stairs, past the young ones’ dorm with its high ceilings and rickety bunk beds. Past the trainers’ quarters spread over the ground floor as if guarding the inmates on the upper floors. Into the cavernous space of the front hall, the border between the living wing and the training wing, between survival and strength.

           When the child continued down the dank stairs to the chapel it was only years of obedience that kept Ciara’s feet moving. The utilitarian concrete walls of the corridor abruptly ended as a pair of massive ornately carved looming oak doors. Even with the warm colour of the soft wood, Ciara would rather stay within the frozen damp corridor.  The other two wings of the building may be survival and strength, but this door…this door led to hell.

           Yet, the choice had never been hers to make.

           The massive doors parted at the child’s hand and Ciara had no choice but to obey. Practice took her up the cobblestone aisle down the centre of the nave, eyes never once straying to the ornate stained-glass windows or the pews filled with iníonacha beside her. The hall was silent, absent the shuffle of impatience from the young ones. No whisper of gossip from the adolescents. Nothing but obedient, expectant, inhuman stillness. A stillness waiting for Ciara to traverse the chapel to her place before the altar and kneel before Máthair far too soon.

           “Ciara.” At the soft lilt of her name, the assassin could not help but allow her head to fall forward in deference. Here, only Máthair used her name for only she truly knew her iníonacha. Only she could call her individual instruments for use. “Cuirim fáilte roimh m'iníon.”

           “Is lann mé i lámha na Máthair.” The words fell like a prayer from Ciara’s dry lips. Yet where comfort and devotion usually flowed from the mantra, a hollow surprising yearning screamed inside her chest.

           “Yes, you are mo iníon, and you have completed a great task for Hydra at my hand.” Ciara grasped for the wisp of pride those words allowed, clinging to the devotion that had allowed her to survive all these years. “With your dedication and the intelligence gathered, Scoil Naomh Ita has recovered The Fist of Hydra.” Years of training kept Ciara from falling over in shock, but it was a near thing. The Fist of Hydra, The Soldier…

           Barnes

           Heart slamming in her chest and struggling to keep her head demurely downcast, Ciara’s eyes searched the sanctuary space behind Máthair. Off to the left of the altar The Soldier hung between a pair of metal braces usually reserved for punishment, leather straps crisscrossed a broad chest. The tight neck brace could not hide the knife burrowed in the back of his spine. Nor could the large strip of leather muzzling him hide the fury in his grey eyes. Supressing the dangerous tears pricking at her eyes, Ciara pushed through fog and darkness in her mind trying to find the path that brought them here.

           Callused fingers pressing the comforting weight of a blade into her hand.

           The sickening click as the blade slips between a gap in the spine.

           Pain erupted at the base of Ciara’s skull, forcing her watering eyes closed as the iníonacha behind her saluted Hydra’s victory. Frozen fingers grew from the pain, ripping and stealing the memory from her mind, leaving an icy, oozing wound and ragged breathing in its place. Her own pale fingers dug into her ankles to keep from trying to rip the pain out of her spine. Experience reminding her that any break in protocol, any break in devotion, would only make this worse

           “Ciara.” Focus, focus on Máthair. Níl rud ar bith agam

           “Only if you choose to be.”

           Pain shot through her skull with renewed vehemence, stealing the breath from her lungs as the fingers continued to rip away through her mind.

           “Ciara.” The crack of the words forced her attention back the stern matron before her. “Though you brought us this great victory, you have also failed me.” The pain emanating from her skull was nothing compared to the unique mix of terror and shame those words produced.

           Failure will not be tolerated.

           But…what was the mission? Where were those trees? Why could she hear music and feel the softness of a warm blanket? Who had laughed? Who had smirked? Who…?

           “Máthair, I have failed.” The words fell unprompted from Ciara’s lips. It did not matter what the mission was. It did not matter if she could not remember. It did not matter that each new thought brought more ice and weeping pain to her mind. It did not matter if she had brought a prize home. Máthair said she had failed.

           “Louder, iníon,” Máthair chided roughly. “Let all hear your confession. You have been gone far too long.” Swallowing an unexpected lump in her throat, Ciara raised her head just enough for her voice to be heard, for her shame to be projected through the stone, glass, and wood of the hall.

           “Máthair, I have failed.” It was not the words, or the silence behind her, or knowing what would come next that dug sharp talons into her chest. It was a pained cry not quite muffled by a leather muzzle that emanated from the left of the altar. Somehow she knew, if she dared to look up at The Soldier, his grey eyes would find hers.

           Why?

           “Confess.” The word snapped her attention back with cold efficiency. It did not matter that she could not remember, as pain flowed from her skull down her back, she knew her sins would be revealed. One cannot hide their misdeeds from Máthair even if they can hide from themselves. 

           “I let myself be seen.” The muffled cry came again, and Ciara had to force her eyes closed to keep from looking up. She wanted to believe The Soldier was crowing over her own pain, the pain of one who had brought him low, the pain of one who had captured him after so long. Yet somehow…somehow…she knew that was not true and that made it all the worse.

           “Confess.”

           “My aim failed.” Silver embedding itself in the leather of her shoulder.

           “Confess.”

           “I allowed my target to live.” Widow curled up on a couch in a soft black hoodie; an amused, challenging smile.

           “Confess.” The pain radiating down her spine, clawing its way across her back grew with each confession. Fingers ripping and tearing away parts of her.

           “I allowed myself to be captured.”

           pizza…

           ripping…. tearing…

           running track…

           No matter how hard she tried to cling to them…

           blue blanket…

           Ciara’s breath caught, tears freely rolling down her cheeks with treacherous consistency.

           “Confess.” The muffled noises from the altar grew ragged against their bonds.

           “I missed a chance to complete my mission.” Widow-Natasha-turning her back to Ciara.

           “Confess.”

           “I fought my confessions.” A solid grip around her wrist to still the blade. Grey smiling eyes and trad music.

           She wrapped herself around the memory, tried to protect it, tried to hold…

           Rip

           “Confess.” Air was burning in her lungs as the white, blinding pain engulfed her form. Her nails dug into her ankles just to keep her upright, joints locked in place to keep her from shuddering. But Máthair would not be denied.

           “I…” for the first time she choked on the words.

           You know, you are actually doing alright

           Ni féidir liom a fhoghlaim

           Shíl mé gur tusa mo dheirfiúr

           “Confess.” The word cracked so hard Ciara could feel it across her face, hot and slicing, chaining her to the present. Chaining her mind to hard cobblestone digging into her knees, to the invisible knife embedded in her spine, to the shallow laboured breathing from the altar that mirrored her own.

           “I…” Made friends? Took comfort? Fraternized? “…was weak.”

           The last thread of memory was torn out of her fingers, leaving a bloody, frozen mess in her mind.

           “Bhí tú.” Ciara could almost feel relief through the frozen pain still radiating from her skull. Her confession was made, sins presented for judgement, but no more would be stolen from her. “Your sins have been revealed, mo Iníon, and they are many. Do you accept punishment?”

           For the first time in her life, Ciara wanted to deny it. She wanted to scream and fight and run and she had no idea why. Something was obviously very, very wrong, her mind hunted with phantoms that distracted her from her duty to Máthair. More than ever she required punishment and correction; more than ever she wanted to rebel. She needed a strong guiding hand; she wanted to slip her leash.

           Yet…

           “Yes, Máthair.” There was never any choice. She would always wear Máthair’s collar; it kept her strong and safe.

           A single, muffled scream broke the silence as Ciara took the offered, withered hand. Sharp mercy would be offered, a chance to cleanse away the sin, a chance to reinforce her loyalty, a chance to redeem herself at Máthair’s guidance.

           That guidance took her to a pair of uprights, the twin to those on the opposite side of the altar. Arms were lashed to the uprights, leather binding her wrists above her head and pulling her upright leaving her toes brushing the cobble. Only when she was immobile, only when there was no escape, did she dared to look up.

           Red-rimmed, grey eyes found her own with a burning intensity that simply stopped the beating in Ciara’s chest. It was not the obvious rage that burned, or the icy hate, or even the calculated way he seemed to be planning everyone’s demise. Her heart stopped at the heart-breaking grief that dwarfed it all the moment his eyes met her own. It was as if The Soldier, the Fist of Hydra…her victim… was apologizing to her as they both stood helpless before Máthair and Hydra’s might.

           Even as his pleas had fallen silent, those eyes held a promise she simply could not understand.

           The pinch of metal slipping beneath the skin of her wrist narrowed the captive’s world to a needle’s point. Pure, unadulterated fear poured through the IV with numbing cold as Máthair filled her vision.

           “You know, mo Iníon, The Soldier is the only reason you have this chance. If you had not delivered this victory, your fate would have been excommunication.” Ciara’s blue eyes finally met the older woman’s, the woman who had taken her in from the chaos of the world. The woman who had strengthened her body and mind to never be its victim again.

           Hydra stole us from the world

           No, that was not right. Máthair had saved her. Saved her from the burning wreckage of the world and the claw would not allow a phantom to steal or confuse that.

           “Go raibh maith agat Máthair. Ba mhaith liom a bheith fuascailte.” The withered hand was almost gentle as it gripped Ciara’s cheek, forcing blue eyes to meet the aged face.

           “I know, Ciara.” The hint of warmth flowing from her name brought tears to Ciara’s eyes as the first impact threw her against her bonds.

 

~*~*~*~

 

           There was no choice but to watch.

           Bucky watched as Ciara had walked through the crowd looking every bit Hydra’s assassin. Every bit the deadly shadow who had almost taken down the Black Widow. Every bit the willing weapon ready to be aimed and reclaimed. Except. Except it was as if that collar did not quite fit anymore. Oh, her steps were solid and she knew the dance, knew what was expected even as clouded obscured her blue eyes. Yet Bucky could see the tiger in her: a challenge, a questioning, starting to unfurl around Ciara.

           Those first few weeks, his tiger had used her chains as a shield. Used them to guard against the fact that she had been used all her life; repeating Hydra’s propaganda to keep her mind safe. Spitting and clawing, growling and roaring at any who dare take that certainty away from her. And when she had started to chafe, when that programming had been questioned and too much blood that had been spilled by her own hand, oh how she had roared.

           She had fought the sad truth they both knew and would relive in this cold chapel: it was easier to be chained and used than to reclaim one’s life.

           The truth did not lessen the pain gripping his numb chest as he watched Ciara kneel before her slaver.  Pain was easier to bear than the mind-numbing fear that encased him when the confession started with the words that had really started this battle months earlier. The words of that first report that had marked her as one of theirs.

           Máthair, I have failed

           Bucky knew the pain these words caused as he watched her kneel alone among the crowd. Yet he could not fight, could not even struggle against his bonds while the blade embedded in his spine kept him detached from his own body. Detached from his hard-won and battle-tested strength. Detached from an extensive library of skills that could have removed restrains and obstacles in record speed. Detached from the freedom he had struggled, bled, and fought so hard to maintain.

           So he did the only thing left to him, the only choice left in his own hands. Bucky called out to Ciara behind the tight leather muzzle that sought to restrict even that freedom. He needed her to know she was not alone, even if he had failed and could not fight for her; she was not alone.

           It was not until her blue eyes reopened, clouded and faded that he saw the true horror of what was unfolding. With each confession, he could feel it in his bones and in the echo of The Soldier. This was so much more than reporting of failures and he shuttered to imagine how those sadists had managed it. Without the drugs, without the restraints, without the chair, they were still able to manage the deepest betrayal.

           Wipe him

           Bucky’s throat was raw from frustration and fury by the time Ciara lifted her head, her eyes seeking his own. Visions of blood and vengeance danced through his mind in a way that had very little to do with The Winter Soldier and every bit of the protective core that was James “Bucky” Barnes. Yet when blue eyes finally cleared enough to see him, cleared enough to showcase the loss and lack of recognition in those eyes, he made her a silent vow. He would not leave her to these sadists. He would not leave her to bondage. He would not leave her.

           A promise he repeated as Barnes forced himself to watch...

           …every hit…

           …every cut….

           …every whip…

           …to categorize every atrocity done and formulate the promise of a fitting revenge. The matron stood by as her proxy took her time, for almost an hour she tormented and broke Ciara’s body. Ripped skin, tore muscle, broke bones and etched pain with an artist’s hand. Yet Ciara never flinched, never moved, never made a sound as the drugs coursing through her veins held every brutality in potential. All waiting to break her spirit.

           And she never tore her lost, confused eyes from his. So unsure, not of the pain she knew would come, but of why, why she was seeking him for comfort. People like them did not find comfort. People like them did not know comfort. People like them could not understand comfort while still in the hands that used them. So he promised again and again as they tore the needle from her arm and her screams shattered through the stone. Bucky promised he would not leave her.

           If only it was a promise he could keep.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

          Everything hurt. Skin deep, bone deep, soul deep hurt.

          A sickening solid mass of guilt festering and oozing deep in her gut made it clear she had earned every ounce of the pain and deserved nothing less.

          Confess…. reveal your sin…Punish…cleanse your sin…

          Punish.

          The shiver that ran through Ciara’s body reignited an overlapping and overwhelming cascade of burning searing agony; the hallmark of Hydra’s healing. Every gift has its price, and the price for survival had always and would always be pain. The price for bones that mended and flesh that fused far faster than the huddled masses was every cell in one’s body melting like magma and re-solidifying at an alarming speed too overwhelming for human nerves to process. A pain different, but no less excruciating, than the day before.

          Ciara had spent the previous day in the warm, golden chapel to Hydra’s strength. Surrounded by effigies to strength and order, reminders of heroic martyrs and paths to glory. The sun streamed through the gem-tone stained glass to bless these fallen heroes and caressed her pale skin as she screamed her until raw throat produced streams of blood.

          The moment Máthair had removed the pin from her wrist and ended the flow of drugs into her blood, the full weight of Ciara’s shame and sin crashed through her in sharp clarity. Every cell in her body screamed for attention, a blazing alarm of wrong broken damage and she had no choice but to feel every single one.

          Every bruise

          Every fracture

          Every abrasion

          Every laceration

          Every distinct injury crowded her consciousness, forcing away everything but the insistent, blinding force of the pain and shame until even consciousness was thrust away. Ciara fought to hold on to the agony of consciousness knowing if Máthair thought her weak, if Máthair thought she had escaped punishment, if Máthair was not pleased, they would simply repeat this dance through hellfire. Not that the merciful darkness of the abyss was allowed to hold her for long.

          Máthair would not be denied.

          Like Ciara’s failures and the drugs and peace, the dark comfort of oblivion was ripped away from her by Máthair’s own hand.

          “Filleann an feall ar an bhfeallóir.” As Ciara was brought back to the land of the living for the fourth time, those sweetly whispered words circled around her mind like a pack of wolves pulling tears from her eyes. A withered hand was cold comfort against a pale cheek burning with fevered pain. The hall had already cleared out, inionacha returning to their duties, leaving just The Soldier and Máthair to witness her penance and condemnation of her treachery.

          Mercy had finally blessed her weak existence as the moon flirted through the dark windows of the chapel. Oblivion closed around those grey lights that had become the centre of her vision a final time. Grace and peace where not even Máthair was able to pull away the tea and pizza, arrows and wooden rings, films and warm blankets.

          Dreams. Such warm tormenting fantasies, that burned away as the pain of healing flesh opened her eyes.

          “Claw…” One breath…two…Ciara pushed herself up from the cot her broken body had been deposited onto and acknowledged another young iníon. Every ounce of her being protested the movement, but that was not the young one’s fault. “…Máthair expects you.”

          “Can I just…” The flash of surprise and fear that skidded across the child’s face stalled the words on Ciara’s tongue. No, she could not just. She could simply comply and follow the young one. Neither of them had a choice but to follow the roles their matron had assigned them. “No…Máthair will not be denied.” The relief that flooded the girl’s freckled face almost provided enough strength to stand.

          Almost.

          The crash of her knees into the rough wood floor sparked fireworks on the edges of Ciara’s vision that did not entirely obscure the small hand that tried to reach out.

          So young to still try. How much longer would that hand reach out before it was broken or buried? Ciara pushed herself upright and pushed away the hopeless thought but she could not help but brush her fingers against the offered hand. Fingers still soft, untainted, and destined for blood. Refusing to be the reason this little one felt pain and not knowing how much longer she could keep her legs under her, the older iníon gestured for the young one to lead the way to their matron.

          Slow, halting steps brought the iníonacha down cold life stealing hallways, past unadorned walls and down steep stairwells. Much to Ciara’s weary surprise, the young one guided them out of the living wing and away from training wing and back towards the chapel. Redemption was usually a private affair between Máthair and her iníon, an offering and acceptance of loyalties between a weapon and her guide. A quite supplication after the public spectacle of punishment. Yet it seemed Máthair wanted to make an exception.

          Unsteady steps once more brought the supplicant up the nave to the altar where Máthair had relocated the tools of her trade for this special occasion. Blood froze in Ciara’s weakened veins, but she refused to shiver at the sight. In some parts of the world these soft tables and white sheets bring comfort, healing, and contentment. A space at the end to gently cradle a relaxed face as tension was carefully worked away by warm, skilled hands and steady pressure. Places of peace and serenity, soft smells and softer music, warmth and care.

          Those beds of healing, however, do not need the thick leather straps so worn with use yet strong enough to hold the writhing.

          Giving in to instinct and letting her eyes skip over the tray of tools looming beside the table meant Ciara’s eyes landed on The Soldier. Limp, lifeless hair had long since fallen out of its tie to lay against his pale skin. It brushed weakly against unforgiving the bonds that lashed him in place. Because this was Scoil Naomh Ita, because this was one of Hydra’s training grounds, he would not be allowed food, or water, or rest. He would not be allowed what he could not take until Máthair decided his fate.

          A growl rumbled in Ciara’s battered chest at the thought. Máthair owned her fate, her life, and her soul. A custody earned, established, and uncontested. Yet the Soldier, the Soldier’s fate should be his own. The Soldier’s freedom had been hard fought after years of service. He did not belong to her. He did not belong to anyone. He…

          “Cailín, I will not be kept waiting.” The words cut across her as quickly as a lash, focusing her eyes to the speaker and her anger to a needle point. Before snapping it.

          For here stood Máthair, her matron and patron. The woman who had taken her from the chaos of the world to make her stronger. The woman who had pulled her from death and destruction to make her a tool for order. A tool for peace. A blade in the hands of the Mother. Shame flooded Ciara as she took the last few steps expected of her to the edge of the bed. The soft sheet brushed her fingertips as her head bowed in deference; this was her chance and her redemption.

          No more words.

          No more confusion.

          No more phantoms.

          No more pain.

          Ciara surrendered her body to the pallet, slipping her face into the hole in the table until nothing but the cold grey stone floor filled her vision. A weary muffled cry filled her ears and tried to distract her. It tried to pull her away from her redemption and test her devotion. Yet the thick band locked her biceps between her sides and the unyielding table, rescuing her from failure.

          “Look, even when she fights against her nature, m'iníon always returns to my hand.” Máthair’s contented words filled Ciara’s chest and stole her breath as another band surrounded wrists and then hips. This is where she belonged, every weapon needs mending, and she was nothing but a blade for the mother.  

          “Soldier, when we first met you told me that she was not mine.” With her legs now immobilized, Ciara almost looked up to find those grey eyes again, but why? He was just as much a prisoner. A prisoner brought low by her own hands. “But you must see it now, she will always belong to me.” Blue eyes burned and pricked with tears as a single strap pressed her forehead into the bed, trapping her as angry waves lapped at the edge of her consciousness.

          “I do hope, when your superiors demand a report of your little sabbatical, you give praise where due for this is the real brilliance of my program.” A hiss escaped Ciara’s clenched teeth as the first cut cleaved flesh along her spine from skull to nape, blood bubbling against the growing surf. “This is the improvement not the Red Room or even your handlers could dream of...” Parallel cuts at the top and bottom of the incision allowed Máthair to fold back skin as if parting the curtains.

          “A little implant, right here at the base of the brain to follow m’iníon wherever she may wander…” Sharp, shearing, blinding pain exploded as Máthair slipped cold metal between the discs of Ciara’s spine. “Enhanced as the girl may be, it is all at my pleasure.  I can inhibit her healing, track where she goes, and even see through her eyes. I am sure you have seen the effects when I hide away her memories, seen me give commands she does not even have to hear, now watch as I strip them all away so she can be my willing tool once more.” The words were losing form, the weight of the metal pushing her down, down, down under the churning waves.

          “…Bá…”  The word choked out of her closing throat as images flooded her brain with dizzying speed.

          A dog, wide open fields, the soft lilting melody of a woman’s voice

          Explosions, burning buildings, burning cars, burning bodies

          Classroom full of young girls, quiet, demure, subdued

          guns, arrows, knives, poisons, needles

          a motorcycle, red hair

          tea…

          blankets…

          Flashes of images… sounds…music… smells…pizza… exploded and disappeared behind shuttering eyelids as air struggled to pass pale lips. Somewhere someone was sobbing. Somewhere someone was screaming. Somewhere someone was sneering. Somewhere…Somewhere….

          Somewhere a banshee’s high and terrible wail ripped through the world before the sky shattered above them. 

 

~*~*~*~

 

          25 hours 43 minutes.

          Six and a half hours from alert to touch down beside the corridor of ruin and rubble that ran along the west side of the compound even with Rogers raging the whole time.

          Eight hours to assess and bind wounds; a full box of bandages and miles of wire for the silent pair of Clint and Tony.

          Four more hours to sort through the shell game of airports and private jets destined for Europe to confirm their target was on one of the many commissioned back to Ireland. Jets to Dublin and Derry, Shannon and Sligo, Belfast and Ballinree; a lovely spectrum from international hubs in major cities to hardly a clear strip of land in the midlands for Widow to sort through.

          Rogers demanded to leave as soon as they had been able to confirm James had been taken to Ireland. The fear-fuelled rage added super soldier damage to the already cracked walls of the compound and made it impossible to reason with the Captain. No matter how Sam explained that three hours in flight was not going to be enough to find the needle of a base in the haystack of a country.

          It took four more grueling hours of combing the dark web and Hydra databases to find the communication breadcrumb they needed to narrow down which Irish base was most likely to hold their quarry. A carefully worded report boasting of reobtained high valued resources with thinly veiled expectations of gratitude and recognition.

          25 hours 43 minutes from alert, Clint had them hovering over the ancient city of Derry/Londonderry scanning for known Hydra frequencies as the team checked their gear with an obsessive focus. James had talked about Northern Ireland being between two governments and nothing encapsulated that quite like a city whose very name held loyalties.

          “You have got to be kidding me.” Widow almost smirked at the whine of Sam’s indignation. “It is a freakin’ school.”

          “Where better to hide a throng of murderous young women?” she countered pragmatically as a scan of the building below materialized before them.  Scoil Naomh Ita successfully masqueraded as a high end boarding primary and secondary school with dorms, classrooms, and a Gothic Chapel. Well, if one ignored the high-end surveillance equipment, subterranean tunnels, and overly demure, obedient students.

          “Really, Natasha? I now have to worry when passing elementary schools?” Sam clipped the shield to his arm after a final look over at Rogers. The current Captain had offered the shield back to his predecessor, but Rogers was pulling a page out of The Soldier’s book and continued checking one of the two side arms and plethora blades strapped to his sides as if he could not hear the conversations around him. Sam needed to be Captain America today, because Steve Rogers was not going to pull any punches getting back his Bucky.

          “If you weren’t before, then you really are on your own…” Widow’s final retort rang as the map finished rendering and she marked the most likely incursion points of the compound. The building looked like a broken cross with dorms on the east side, classrooms on the west, and chapel out the back leaving four obvious entry points: the front door and each point of the cross. She knew the plan, there really was only one plan, but Rogers needed to take back control.

          “Steve.” The burning eyes that flashed up at Natasha’s call could set a country alight if she did not focus it on the true enemy. “Call the teams.” He blinked as if he could not quite bring himself back from the brink of destructive wrath. Yet it only took a minute before, slamming the last sidearm into its holster, Rogers stepped up to the highlighted map.

          “Wanda and Sharon, you’ve got the west. Sam and Bruce, you have the East. Clint and Nat, you get the Chapel.” With each assignment he was greeted with a sharp nod. A slow, sharp spark of vengeance shown through the fire in Roger’s eyes. “I will knock on the front door.”

          A simple plan, simultaneous incursion in multiple locations to split forces and maximize the chances of finding James swiftly and as whole as possible. Natasha waited, perched on a window on one side of the chapel. Clint was on the opposite side waiting for the signal of Rogers in all his righteous glory knocking down the front door. It was a mission like any other and yet not at all. The Widow would go in and fulfill her objective, but Natasha would protect her family.

          The crash and gunfire from the front of the building splintered through the afternoon, releasing Widow to throw a sonic charge through the intricate stained-glass window. The glass from each window in the wing showered down to sparkle along the warm wood pews, cobblestone floor and elevated stage of an altar. An altar to Hydra’s twisted ideology complete with a gaudy steel octopus effigy and James strung up like an offering to its might. Wide black bands wrapped, bound, and hid most of his limp body and pale gaunt face as they restricted Natasha’s chest.

          If James was the offering, Ciara was a true sacrificial lamb. Where James looked unkempt, he also looked mostly unharmed; the prized catch that would fetch top dollar and recognition for being less damaged. Yet Ciara was completely expendable. Her normally pale skin peeked out of the thin faded black t-shirt and sweatpants blossoming into a rainbow of yellows, blues, and deep purples with branches of seeping red cuts.  While Widow was no stranger to beatings, something about seeing Ciara bound bruised and bloody to a bed forced up bile and frozen rage from her core. A rage that crystallized around the thick cable running from the base of Ciara’s skull to a computer bank and the old woman clacking away smugly at its keyboard. 

          “Ok, this looks bad. We have eyes on Barnes and Ciara,” Clint reported, unleashing a feral rumbled over the coms that could only have been the former Captain.

          The tale-tell click of Clint’s arrow brought Natasha peace even as the cable was ripped from Ciara’s neck. After years of working with the archer, she could listen to the cues of Clint’s form to know just when to enter the field; Widow could wait her turn.

          Whisper of fabric at the draw of the bow.

          Draw in breath.

          Second of pure silence in chaos.

          The snap of wire. Flight of arrow. Shift of sheet. Hiss through clenched teeth.

          A black carbon shaft burrowed deep into Ciara’s left shoulder as she used her broken body to shield her master. Clint’s curse and James’ muffled cry fell on deaf ears as Widow dropped herself from the high wall, crouching behind the pews. From her cover, she watched Ciara continue to rise from the table, her body far too stable for its broken frame. The captive acted as a shield while backed the old woman towards the rear of the altar. Clint’s curses fell as often as his off-centered arrows, pulling attention as Widow’s shadow crept along the edge of the room.

          Get to the target, separate from captor, eliminate captor.

          Widow moved behind the thick wall of the Soldier at the target’s flank, the warm weight of her sidearm in her hand rising just behind his leather-clad legs. Clint was playing his role well; Ciara’s clouded blue eyes locked on him with a protective arm back around the sneering woman. In her right mind, Ciara would have known, would have realized Clint did not miss as another arrow flew a hair’s width from skin. Yet their Ciara was gone.  

          As Widow steadied her aim at the minuscule martinet, the treacherous afternoon sun filtered through the broken windows and flashed off the silver of Widow’s bites. The flash of light gave Ciara just a moment to push the woman toward the exit. The bullet grazing her shielding calf.

          Widow launched herself out behind the wall of The Soldier, firing again at the withdrawing woman. The bullet flew off target and shattered on the stone wall as Ciara threw herself at the gun. The muzzle burned the pale fingers wrapped around the weapon, but Ciara did not flinch as she ripped it away. Widow let go quickly and pushed through Ciara to get to the back door. She had to reach her goal, she had to eliminate the oppressor. Yet strong arms wrapped around Widow’s waist, throwing her off balance and directly into the wall of the Soldier’s bound body.

          Ciara stalked forward with mechanical strength, seeming not to notice the blood dripping from her neck or down her leg, clouded eyes completely focused on her quarry. Widow really did not want to injure the woman, she refused to help Hydra cause harm, yet this needed to end. Widow’s steady fingers darted up and pulled down the leather band around the Soldier’s mouth before she threw her shoulder into Ciara’s side.

          “Ciara!” The raw, dry call brought nothing but a sharp coughing fit to the Soldier, the assassin’s eyes still locked on Widow. “Stad!”

          Even the Soldier’s voice could not clear the clouds before those blue eyes. Ciara reached for the tray of surgical tools by the table and threw it at the Widow in a shattering clatter. Widow ducked and kicked her leg out to sweep Ciara to the floor, but Ciara caught herself on bruised hands and bloody arms just before her head hit the stone, fingers quickly reaching out blindly for the closest weapon.

          Widow stayed crouched and waited for the next volley; her target was long gone. She now needed to subdue Ciara and get her out of here in as few pieces as possible.

          Ciara pushed herself back up to her feet with the glint of a blade sparkling menacingly in her fist, eyes seeing nothing but opponents to eliminate.

          “Ciara.” Natasha could not miss the pain in the Soldier’s plea. “Ní bhaineann tú leo.” Even as his voice faltered, Ciara raised the blade and shifted to a tactical grip, revealing the sharp edge of a surgical scalpel. Widow took a step back, ready to launch herself onto the woman’s shoulders.

          Steady, stalking steps brought Ciara into the square light that had revealed the Widow a moment before. A light that shone off Widow as she tensed, muscles ready, breath steady, eyes focused. A light that shone off the ruby and silver of the blade like some morbid torch. A light tilted silver as it reflected and penetrated Ciara’s eyes.

          The resounding clatter of metal on stone muted the sounds of chaos and battle held behind the wooden door. Ciara’s eyes widened into icy pool as she stumbled backward and clamped her hand down on her bleeding spine.

          “Ciara?” The hope cracking the Soldier’s voice narrowed Natasha’s eyes, one of them had to focus on the threat. “An…An bhfuil tú ann?” Clear pain-stricken eyes snapped up at his words almost as fast as Widow’s bites. Those same glistening eyes shifted and locked on Widow, only sparing the raised weapons a passing glance.

          “Ciara?” Not James’ broken voice or the swell of the battle pushing against the door could pull Ciara’s focus. She carefully pried her shaking hands away from her neck and placed one blood splattered hand on top of the other, pulling it towards herself before pointing to Barnes.

          Natasha’s eyes narrowed as she carefully tried to decipher the movements, locking them away in her brain as shaking hands rose again. While the crash of bodies against the door echoed in the eerily calm room, Ciara crossed her battered wrists with her pinkie and pointer fingers facing out as she raised them before pointing again to Barnes.

          The doors finally crashed open, but Ciara kept her tear-soaked eyes locked on the Natasha’s, begging her to see and understand. Her fingers stacked in front of her and she pressed one hand behind the other before pointing to Barnes a last time. Message relayed, all strength seemed to leave the assassin, battered arms falling limp to her bleeding sides.

          “Bucky!” The mix of relief and anguish in Roger’s voice was quickly echoed by the pained and exhausted moan of his partner. The Soldier could run through hell and back for weeks on next to no resources and no one could stop him. Yet with Steve Rogers, James was finally allowed to be human again, be a man again; and this man had been through enough. Steve marched up the nave like he was storming the beach at Normandy, all purpose, determination, and a single-minded focus that forced Natasha to turn.

          “Rogers, we have to move him carefully.” Anger was quickly chased by fear across the blonde’s face, but his determined steps did not falter until he reached his destination.

          “Buck…” Natasha turned away from the pair as Rogers reached out; sometimes looking at love and pain that strong was like looking into the sun. Yet the only warmth she felt now was the wry admiration and amusement to find the rest of the room devoid of life. There were not many who could slip away unheard by Widow, but Ciara had proven her ability more than once. And even if Natasha did not know what the other woman had signaled before the door had blown open, it had been an obvious goodbye.

          “She left, didn’t she…” Natasha did not have to turn to see the hurt on James’s face. She knew James had wanted to save Ciara, wanted to bring her in from the cold. He wanted to guide her away from the traps and darkness other members of the club had stumbled through. But they each had to find their own way out of the chains.

          “There was about a 75 percent chance of that even before this shit show.” Clint rationalized as he dropped in from his window looking far worse for wear.

          “And where have you been?” Natasha crossed her arms and raised her eyebrow in curiosity. Clint may be a lot of things, but it was sacred law that he would never leave her back unguarded.

          “Keeping a nightmare-inducing gaggle of terrorizing teenyboppers from trying to steal the quinjet.” Clint looked almost out of breath as he stared her down defensively. A look that failed to do anything but induce her to smirk as a purple band-aid fell from his cheek.  “Much harder than it sounds when you don’t actually want to hurt them…”

          “I assumed you moved the jet to the courtyard?” It was Clint’s turn to raise an eyebrow as if she had asked the obvious. There was not much more they could do here. Choices had been made. Wounds had been dealt. Battle lines had been redrawn. It was time to retreat and regroup. “Great, you and Rogers get James out of here. Take Wanda, Sam, and Bruce with you. Sharon and I will deal with clean up.” Rogers looked up at her wide–eyed, even as his fist clung to James’ torn shirt.

          “Nat…we won’t leave you alone with all the clean-up…” A small smile brushed her lips as she stared down Rogers. The man he loved needed medical attention and was in a world of hurt, but the leader would not leave his team behind. God save her from honorable men.

          “Steve Rogers, what would Peggy say if she heard you now?” Rogers looked frozen in shock before James barked out a ghost of a laugh.

          “She would say…do as Natasha says.”





Chapter Text

          From Sarah Rogers, to Peggy Carter, to Natasha Romanoff, thank God strong women could still get through the striking stubbornness of Steve Grant Rogers. Bucky was always grateful for those women who could see the strength behind the weakness and the man behind the symbols. Women who were strong enough to protect and care for Steve when Bucky was at his weakest.

          Weak enough to be strapped onto a gurney in the quinjet because he still had no control over his body. With a nutritional IV trying desperately to make up the past 48-hours of excitement, neglect, and damage and the speed Barton was demanding from the jet to get them home, maybe Bucky would be back on his feet before Steve crashed. Maybe. Steve was going to crash. Steve was going to give into the guilt. Steve was going to wake up restless and miserable and helpless and angry. And Bucky would do everything in his power to pick up the pieces again.

          Bucky knew the next few weeks would be as much about Steve’s recovery as his own. But for now, for now he was grateful that no one needed him yet. Steve would not break down until they were alone. the team had no need of Barnes up in the air and even if they did there was not much he could give. For now, he could finally close his eyes and try to process what the hell had happened.

          The Soldier would have seen this coming. He would have seen her inability to let go of Hydra. He would have seen her cling to the simplicity of following orders. He would have seen all the little warning signs and red flags that screamed she was not ready yet.

          Níl….Deartháir Geimhridh

          But Bucky was truly a bleeding heart. Bucky could only see movie nights and the joy she tried to hide when he brought her a new blanket. He was blinded by the way she would pet Lucky when no one was looking and the peace a good cuppa seemed to bring her. Bucky could only see Ciara struggling to find who she was…his sister.

          But Ciara did not need him to protect her like he protected little Becca from the sleaze down the street. This was not trying to convince his stubborn mother’s stubborn daughter that it was smarter to live at home until she found a husband. Ciara had never been allowed to make her own choice, had never been allowed to see life beyond the end of a blade. Bucky had to watch her run out into the cold and fire because it was her choice. No matter how much he hated it.

          “You can’t really blame her…” Bucky forced himself to focus on the smudge of red before his tired eyes until they finally processed Wanda’s face. She lowered herself on the bench Steve had abandoned in order to call Natasha and hide his pacing.

          “I don’t…” Wanda raised a delicate eyebrow at him and he shook his head. “I really don’t…I ran, Nat ran, hell, I honestly don’t know why you didn’t…” Wanda had refused to accept her own membership to the club, she refused the out that Hydra used and tricked her as harshly as anyone else. She fully believed her choices were her own and the consequences on her own shoulders but that did not mean her road had been any less rocky.

          “But you wish she didn’t.” There was no question in Wanda’s voice and Bucky really could not deny it.

          “Can’t heal when you are looking over your shoulder…” She had to know she could have come back. She could have been safe. She could have come home. She had to have known that right?

          “She is not ready yet.” Bucky started a moment at her words, knowing full well Wanda could hear his thoughts if she wanted to. But she would not cross that boundary uninvited. “She needs to find her way back in her own time.”

          “I didn’t and I knew there was someone waiting for me.” Wanda’s eyes fluttered over to the ball of nervous energy that was Steve before turning back with a soft smile.

          “She has someone waiting too…I don’t think that was the last we will see of your sister.” Bucky jerked and narrowed his eyes but Wanda could not leash her laughter. “Down Barnes, I did not go looking. It is written all over your face.” Her smile turned sad and he could not help but read the longing there. Someone had once looked at her with a brother’s love.

          Her faith was intoxicating even as she wandered off to try, again, to get Steve to settle. They would get home. They would heal and rebuild. Then, only then when he could offer her safety again, would he bring his sister home.

 

~*~*~*~

 

          Clint hated how normal it felt to walk through the rubble of the Avenger’s common room. It never got easier to see holes blown into one’s home, but it can become far too normal. As normal as Hydra once again proving they needed to be wiped off the face of the earth. As normal as Barnes in the medical wing and Steve refusing to leave his side. As normal as Natasha off on a mission, refusing to come home and recover. Normal never seemed to mean good or healthy in their world.

          Lagging feet brought Clint unerringly towards the kitchen and a beeline to the coffee maker just for a sense of rightness. The pot that rested on the warmer was already beyond rescue, debris having shattered the glass and pulverized the plastic with malicious glee. Yet the sink held salvation. As if reaching a hand out for rescue, the black handle of the second coffee pot poked out of the sink from under a cover of dishes. With a hopeful and undignified sound, Clint reach out and gingerly released the pot from its protection.

          “Come to me, you lovely thing, you…” The sparkling crystal carafe came whole and unharmed into Clint’s loving hands. There can still be good in the world as long as there is coffee. With careful steps, the archer washed the pot, filled the coffee maker, and watched with rapt fascination as the first golden drop hit the shining glass.

          “Aw….coffee…” Just as the warm aroma of earth and light fill the room, just as the world was righting itself, the heat of the life-sustaining brew found the sliver of a crack in the pot. Unbelieving and devastated eyes watch in utter horror as the last coffee pot shattered with a slight pop, leaving the forlorn hiss of coffee burning on the heating plate. “…No…”

          Uncaring of the debris and sharp edges, Clint slipped down the breakfast bar to the floor while burying his face in his quivering hands. Yet it seemed the universe would not even allow him the time to properly mourn as his phone vibrated in his pocket.

          “Natasha…coffee….” He knew it was her, always knew when it was her even before her indulgent snicker reached his ears.

          “Prioritize, Clint,” Natasha chided and he could almost see the amused shake of her head.

          “Natasha! Coffee!” he retorted a little more desperately, just to cling to the warmth of the banter. “You may not get the importance stuck out there in the land of tea-drinking heathens…” He turned his phone and gave it a little shake to bring up a hologram of her smirking back at him.

          “Well speaking of our own tea drinker, you’ve been working on ISL a bit, right?” Clint tilted his head as if trying to find where this conversation had gone sideways.

          “A bit. But it’s even worse than my ASL…” Without waiting for further confirmation, Natasha seemed to balance her phone on an unseen surface and carefully give three signs. First, she placed one hand on top of the other, pulling it towards herself, “Save…” Clint translated on a second try. Then, she crossed her hands at the wrists with her pinkie and pointer fingers facing out as she raised them. “Help.” Lastly, Nat stacked her fingers in front of her and pressed one hand behind the other. “Protect?”

          “Glupaya devchonka … you really…” The enduring mix of frustration and amusement that flitted around Natasha’s face as she shook her head brought a smirk to Clint’s face.

          “Natty… want to let me in on the joke?” Shock crossed Natasha’s face at the endearment but quickly shifted back to warm amusement. He knew he could not keep this, but he could pretend to have his best friend back as long as she let him.

          “Ciara, glupyy …those were her parting words. To save, help, and protect James.” The glint of amusement that sparkled in those green eyes gave Clint hope even as he smirked at her.

          “Protect James? Protect the Winter Soldier, partner of the former Captain America from…?” He raised an eyebrow as Natasha’s amusement melted into bittersweet understanding. “Hydra? AIM? I mean really, who else does Ciara want us to protect him from?”

          “Herself.”

 

~*~*~*~

 

          Stepping off the green shop steps back onto the chaos of O'Connell was like stepping into the surf. A crush of bodies, bags, kids, and prams flowed up and down the wide sidewalk in waves of accents and music. The shadow passed unseen through the masses, around statues of long dead revolutionaries and across tram tracks keeping her eyes down but always watchful. It did not take long for the building to give way to the weak sunlight and for the soft murmur of the Liffey to carrying over the din of the city

          The shadow would follow the river’s path out to the edge of the city, out to the edge of the sea. From there, she would pass from the Isle that had always be home. As long as Máthair still hunted her wayward weapon, the shadow would continue to run as far away from home as fate would allow her.

          A flash of silver caught her vision, blinding and stopped Ciara in her tracks. Panic and a pathetic hope battled for space in her constricting chest making it impossible to pull in air.  Until her eyes could focus and see the silver car, not a silver arm, continue down the street. Ciara caught herself on the short wall beside the Liffey and demanded obedience from her lungs.

          He would not come; he could not. She made sure of that with her own hand.

          Aggressively ignoring the wetness of her cheeks, the shadow continued down the path towards the docks. Pale fingers clung to the shape edges of the metal box she cradled against her chest. A simple signal jammer she had assembled in the shop’s café. She knew she was still tagged, still carried Máthair’s implant, but she had to hope this little box could hide her and cut her leash.

          Leash cut and ties severed, the sea would swallow up the shadow. What was left of her would slip away into the empty spaces of the world.

          I have no place in this world.

          And what a freedom that would be.