we few, we happy few, we band of-
Captain America sleeps for seventy years, but the Winter Soldier doesn't. Of course, Natasha has never known him as "Bucky," and doesn't even realize at first that he is the same man whose face is woven in knots around her memory, as much an implant as a fact. She has run her fingers over the scars on his face, and she has crushed his windpipe with the curve of her knee, and she has ripped a knife across another man's throat because he asked her to.
Those things are real. (She thinks.)
Steve slept in hibernation, but the man she knows as James marched through the winter and stained the snow with blood. She knows: she was there. She knows: she stained it, too.
"I don't understand," Steve says when it happens. "He's—all this time, he's been alive? And he . . . why does he still look—that's Bucky?"
Natasha knows what he is asking, which is not "that's Bucky?" but "tell me that's not Bucky." She knows because she also wants it not to be the boy that Steve grew up with, the boy he loved so desperately.
They have that in common, she thinks.
"Brothers, best friends, father-figures. Relationships are fucking complicated," groans Tony, digging the heels of his hands into his eyes.
Nobody answers, but nobody laughs. Just as well; for once, Natasha is fairly sure he isn't joking.
She isn't always sure, when she remembers things, that she is—in the strictest sense—remembering them. She can't always tell the difference, because fear and cold and music and ballet shoes feel real whether or not she actually wore them.
She knows the Soldier from the Red Room, from his sharp voice that issued commands but also whispered I love you, and they had loved in blood but they'd loved clean of it, too. This is the part she wants to remember, and this is the part she wants to be her own.
But is the nature of her upbringing that most good things are ones and zeroes; the blood always turns rust-colored, and is real.
"They call him the Winter Soldier," she says, keeping her voice as flat as she knows how. "He is—to say it simply—the perfect assassin. He was my trainer, in the Red Room. He . . ." she clears her throat. "We worked together on several missions."
Steve has been shaking his head. "But he's brainwashed," he says firmly. "They've lied to him, implanted him, taken away his memories—"
"That is likely," Natasha agrees, and does not say: it is worse when they give than when they take away. "When I knew him, he was not called Bucky. I don't think he would have recognized the name."
"Then we have to save him," Steve declares, and looks around, daring someone to protest. "We can't just give up on him. We can't."
In a voice Natasha does not recognize, Thor says, "Steve."
Everyone can hear the reminder in his tone, can hear the words my brother in his tone, can hear the memory of Loki and the anguish on Thor's face because families are never free of bloodshed.
"We can't," Steve says again, voice rising, and Bruce puts a hand on his shoulder.
Clint never asks, because he knows better. "Are you going to tell him?" he asks, to the point. Clint is always to the point. When you can see everything, there is no reason to take detours.
"I don't know," she answers honestly. "I don't," and she bites the words off to keep from saying want to.
But Clint looks at her with eyes that are infinitely kind and infinitely unrelenting when he says, "You spared a woman's life, once, for a piece of mind Bucky Barnes had long since lost to wires and electricity. You want to be a part of this team, you can't sit here and call him your trainer." He is quiet for a moment. "He is Steve's brother, Tasha."
"What do you know of brothers?" Natasha spits, unthinking. Clint merely looks at her, one eyebrow raised. She feels her cheeks heat and leans her head against his shoulder, sorry. "You know of brothers," she amends softly.
"I know what it is like to lose one," Clint agrees, and squeezes her hand.
"We have to," says Tony, and to his credit, he looks sorry. "You said it yourself, Cap: he's not Bucky anymore. He's been poked and prodded and scrambled within an inch of possibility—"
"They scrambled Natasha, didn't they?" Steve cries back, and the desperation is in his tone, on his face, in the way his fingers sprint against the countertop like they were reading answers there in braille. "They—Natasha is scrambled too, Natasha is—we could do that for Bucky, we could—"
He turns on her. "How did you get yourself back?" he demands. "How did you do it?"
And Natasha thinks of the way her Soldier's callused hands had held her, had stretched her feet and made her dance, had touched her face when covered in blood and said this is the only way, Natusik, it is the only truth. Let them take whatever they want: blood is always red, and doesn't lie. She had believed him. He had believed himself.
(If it had ever happened at all.)
"How?" Steve begs, and Natasha admits, the words like needles, "I didn't."
It is like this: a man called Ivan Petrovich lived, had a son, died. She knows this. She has looked it up, repetitively, obsessively, each time reminding herself, yes. He lived. He had a son. He died. This much is true. This much is stone-written, and she will read the words until they are imprinted on her bones.
It is like this: a woman named Natalia Romanova was once the jewel in the crown of the Russian Ballet. She wore red shoes. She was called the most perfect ballerina to ever grace the stage, and it was said you could see the space between her toes in pointe and the floor. It was said she most so perfectly it was almost as if someone had designed her only for this.
It is like this: Clint sometimes must remind her that she is allergic to pears, because the last time anyone ever wired anything to her head, they hadn't read her medical file.
And it is—it will always be—like this: she cannot be sure that she has known anybody or done anything, cannot trust the way sand feels new in her hands, cannot ever discover why the Hulk is not merely a threat but bone-shakingly terrifying, why the size and power and mindlessness of him turns her muscles into stone. She does not know anything about herself, not her name or her age or her birthplace, but she can still fold into a perfect plié.
They know of brothers, Thor and Clint and Steve, and Natasha too, and they stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and watch one come. He burns. He is made of Winter but all around him the air is too hot for snowmen, too hot for even air.
"I loved him," Natasha says without turning her head. She turns to Steve. "I'm sorry."
"Then save him," begs Steve, and she confesses, "I don't know how."
He screams and throws himself against the walls of the Hulk Tank, but no one goes to see him.
"That's not Bucky," Steve says firmly. "I will go when we know how to get him back."
No one says that they can never get him back. What would be the point? Steve already knows.
Natasha watches from the cameras, and feels like Clint in his nest. It would be so easy let him free. It would be so easy to let them erase everything she has done here, to forget the little pieces of life that make her human (or—that try). When you are built, you do not know what it is like to look into a man's eyes and feel pity, feel compassion, feel pressed to say: I knew your friend, I loved him.
Eventually she goes. They look at one another from opposite sides of the glass, and the Winter Soldier spits.
"Traitor," he says, and the saliva runs down in a messy trail. "Coward."
She cocks her head to the side, taking a step towards him. "Do you remember me?" she asks, and is curious.
"Black Widow," he answers instantly. "I trained you."
"You loved me."
She says it as if she is certain. She takes another step.
He laughs. "You should know better than to trust what a man says in the bedroom."
She presses her hand against the glass. "You should know better than to trust what a government puts into your brain."
He falters, casting around suddenly as if for a weapon. She shakes her head. This is the only truth, she hears him say. "I don't love you," he tells her, firmly, and sounds so sure.
I can never have him back, she thinks, and the thought is sad, but not surprising. She can never have herself back, either.
Except, of course: there is always an 'except.'.
"Only once," says Thor, whose hand trembles around the handle of his hammer. In the other hand he holds the Tesseract. "Anymore than that—"
"And tonight we'll dine in yell, yes, we got it 300," Tony interrupts. "What are we waiting for?"
Natasha is surprised when they all turn to look at her, and it is in Steve's compassionate—always compassionate—gaze that she suddenly understands the question.
"Oh," she says dumbly.
Steve's eyes are desperate with a plea he will never say out loud. Thor won't look at her and Clint won't look away, for they both know of brothers. Bruce murmurs, "I would take it. I would take it out of the hands of a four-year-old who needed it, Natasha."
She smiles, a little. "No," she disagrees. "You wouldn't."
Bruce sighs. "It was worth a shot."
She takes the Tesseract from Thor and holds it up to her face, wondering. You are not a soldier, Clint had said to her once.
And what am I? she wonders, idle.
"You have every right," begins Steve, but Natasha shoves the Tesseract at him.
"I owe you a debt," she says, love is for children, she thinks, and then, "I had a brother once, too."
After all, she thinks as Bucky shutters back to life, as Bucky's eyes register the decades of spilled blood, as Bucky's mind replays the open throats and severed limbs—
After all, perhaps the only one that she was saving was herself.