Antarctica-or-bust (rata_toskr) wrote,

For Want of a Nail - Part V: Metal

Title: For Want of a Nail
Fandom: Captain America/Avengers
Series: To Rewrite History
Pairings: Steve/Bucky
Warnings: Angst, dystopia, violence, etc.
Word Count: 10,527 (35,994 so far)
Disclaimer: If I owned it, the good guys would have lost.
Summary: Hydra wins the war and then the world.  Seventy years later, the Resistance has a plan to win it back.

Part I: Fire
Part II: Ice
Part III: Stone
Part IV: Flesh

Captain America was not what Natasha had expected. Sure the man was physically impressive even when laid out in the infirmary, but whatever advantages the serum gave him meant nothing if he couldn’t do what must be done. He needed to be ruthless and from the beginning, the agent had her doubts.

Because the Resistance might have painted Captain America as one of its greatest heroes, but Steve Rogers mostly just seemed nice. Friendly, open and far too cheerful for someone who had woken up in a completely different century, it took Natasha a week to believe that he wasn’t secretly a Hydra agent meant to sabotage their plans.

Their enemies had been trying to infiltrate SHIELD for decades and if Pierce had somehow gotten wind of Stark's intentions, he could have easily planted Rogers in the mountains for them to find. Admittedly, carving up one of his own men to look like Captain America and then placing him in cry-stasis was more extreme than anything he’d tried before, but expendability was the singular truth of Hydra's law. So the agent remained suspicious of Rogers until she saw him with his sniper because no true member of Hydra would have revealed such weakness to his enemies.

Indeed the captain had worn his heart on his sleeve during that reunion, his relief at Sergeant Barnes’ survival too obvious to fake. Even Tony had noticed how much they cared about each other before he caught them kissing and the scientist tended to be oblivious to any emotion other than his own.

So while Rogers could still be brainwashed, Natasha decided that he was probably safe enough for her boss to visit without supervision and then tried to put all thought of Captain America from her mind. She had work to do, work that hadn't stopped just because they'd found a frozen hero on the mountainside.

However, even though her missions were filled with blessed silence, the redhead could not escape the gossip in her off hours and nothing that she heard improved her first impression very much. Because the only thing that SHIELD’s other agents could talk about was how nice Captain America was; how he listened to their stories and sincerely empathized. Which might serve to humanize the legend in the eyes of Natasha's colleagues, but humanity would not stop the bullets when their last strike began. Rogers had too much heart to do SHIELD's work – they needed a weapon not a symbol – and the redhead could not trust him to burn Hydra to the ground.

But Tony was too starry-eyed to admit the truth about Captain America and so the agent could only do her best to see his plan succeed. After all, this was her job as Tony's Second – he had the mad ideas and Natasha worked out the logistics – and she had survived the Red Room by being adaptable. Thus she would try to turn Rogers into the weapon that SHIELD required even if she had to beat him black and blue along the way.

The agent had no intention of letting someone else run the captain's training, not when she knew all of the dirty tricks that Hydra's soldiers liked to pull. SHIELD’s final mission was sure to require her special brand of viciousness and if she was going to train Captain America, then she was going to train his sergeant because James Barnes was the only reason she thought this might succeed.

Although Natasha hadn't heard much gossip about Barnes, not counting Tony's gleeful “they're in love” right after he and Rogers were reunited, she had recognized something of herself in the sniper’s eyes. Barnes had the eyes of a survivor, of a man who would do anything to protect the people whom he loved, and his captain was clearly the first person on that list.

In truth, the redhead was quite certain that Rogers was the only person his sergeant really cared about, his charming smiles doing little to hide the killer underneath. However, while someone else might have found this dichotomy disturbing, Natasha simply marked Barnes as a potential asset in her mind. Sure there was the problem of his left arm to deal with, but SHIELD could work on that as long as the sniper was still as ruthless as his gaze had promised her.

So the agent told Tony to bring Barnes to Captain America's first training session and despite the sergeant’s self-deprecation, he knew what a gun was for.

His aim was truly impressive once he got used to the difference in his balance and even that didn’t take as long as Natasha thought it would. Indeed Barnes was a natural-born sniper if she’d ever seen one and his skill helped to ease the sting of disappointment when she discovered that Rogers couldn’t even land a punch. His attempts were simply pitiful and even if he was better with shield in hand, God I really hope so, Captain America couldn’t afford to rely on such a crutch constantly.

No, Rogers needed to be a well-rounded fighter if he was going to survive the coming struggle and Natasha had no intention of sending him to be slaughtered needlessly. Sure the redhead would sacrifice all of their lives to defeat Hydra without a second’s hesitation, but Rogers deserved a fighting chance at least.

Thankfully, the man learned quickly and his inexperience meant that she and François didn’t have to train too many bad habits out of him. So while Captain America still had a long way to go before Natasha could call him ready, this first day proved that he would be able to hold his own physically.

Both men would be terrors in battle once Natasha had finished with them and the agent already had a few ideas about how to sort out the sergeant’s missing limb. Given his skill with guns, Barnes wouldn’t need anything too fancy, even if Tony was bound to add a few embellishments. Those would only make the man more dangerous, an effective back-up plan in case Rogers’ bleeding heart got the best of him.

So the redhead pulled her boss aside once their training session finally broke up for dinner, leaving François and Frederick to see that Captain America and his sergeant were fed and watered properly. Frederick had always been the best of them at taking care of people so Natasha knew that her charges would be in good hands as she dragged Tony from the room.

Although the scientist was distracted at first, his mind overrun with new strategies now that he had seen his pet supersoldier in action, once the agent explained what she needed, his eyes lit up instantly. Tony had always had a weakness for technical challenges and he didn't get to do as much inventing as he would like these days.

So the agent left her boss muttering in his office, half a dozen pencil sketches strewn across his desk. Now that she had given him the idea, it was only a matter of time before he came up with something, though Natasha didn't intend to mention this to anyone just yet. There was no point in giving Barnes hope before his new arm was ready, not when the final battle might still arrive too soon.

Instead the redhead focused on turning Captain America into a proper fighter and the first that he actually managed to take her down, Natasha had to admit that she was a little proud of him. Not that she showed it beyond a quick flash of smile, giving her student a grudging, “I guess you’re not completely hopeless,” before climbing back to her feet.

She couldn't allow the captain to become overconfident as long as he was still only barely competent, his blows lacking that extra edge of viciousness. Natasha could only hope that Captain America would prove more ruthless when fighting enemies instead of allies, but even here she had her doubts.


“I know you think Steve's a sap, but he'll do what you need; he hates Hydra more than anything,” Barnes said out of the blue a few weeks later while they were watching his captain run SHIELD's combat course. “Honestly, Steve's never been as nice as everyone seems to think.”

At this, Natasha raised one skeptical eyebrow because, in her experience, nice was exactly the word that she would use. “Are you sure about that? The man practically bleeds wholesomeness.”

“I never said he wasn’t nice; I said he wasn’t as nice as you think,” Barnes corrected and the agent was honestly curious about what he thought the distinction was. “If you wanted a monster you should have gone to Hydra, but Steve’s always been a dirty fighter and even though he’d prefer not to kill anybody, we were soldiers not pacifists.”

“I’ll believe it when I see it,” the redhead replied, not ready to be won over that easily. But the sergeant didn’t take her refusal to believe him personally; he just shrugged one shoulder and went back to watching Rogers as he sprinted toward the finish line.

The captain had almost made it when another turret came up in his blind spot, a hail of rubber bullets taking him out at the knees.

“If he doesn't learn to watch his back, he's going to get himself killed out there,” Natasha growled, annoyed that Rogers was still making a mistake like that. Sure the man's proficiency had improved by leaps and bounds over the past few weeks, but good wasn't good enough for Captain America. He needed to be superhuman in skill as well as body, the kind of hero that the legends always claimed.

“You're not planning to send Steve against Hydra alone, are you?” Barnes asked, the sniper's voice more alarmed than Natasha had ever heard it sound before. “Steve may have the serum but he's not invulnerable and I've always been there to keep an eye on him.”

To be perfectly honest, SHIELD had no intention of sending Captain America into the field without backup, even if Banner hadn't managed to create any more supermen. But this seemed as good a time as any to find out if Tony had been making metal arms for nothing since Natasha had been wrong once or twice in her lifetime and the sniper might still decide that he preferred to sit this battle out.

“Would you watch his back now if you could?” the agent asked, leaving her usual methods of interrogation behind for blunt inquiry. However, Barnes seemed like he would respond better to frankness than subtlety and his answer proved that her faith had not been misplaced after all.

“I'd follow him in a heartbeat,” the sergeant told Natasha, his lips twisting sardonically. “But being able to run a few obstacle courses doesn’t mean that I could hold my own in a battle; for fuck’s sake, I can't even reload my gun easily. So as much as I’d like to be there, I want Steve to survive this more than I care about my pride and it’s better if he has real agents on his team.”

“Are you sure about that? SHIELD’s men are going to be more focused on their mission than Rogers’ safety,” Natasha said and perhaps she was having a little too much fun poking at Barnes to see how he’d react.

“Okay, are you trying to burn me up right now?” the man growled, narrowing his eyes in irritation even as the redhead smiled at him placidly. “I know Steve would be safer if I could go with him but I can’t and I don’t need you reminding me that I’m fucking useless now.”

“Ah, but that's where you’re wrong, Barnes. Guns aren’t the only things that improved while you were frozen and I asked Stark to make you a new arm as soon as I first saw you shoot.” In fact, Tony had just finished a working prototype, his lab only slightly more singed than it was when he began. While the scientist was certain to keep tweaking his invention and they wouldn’t know if he’d truly succeeded until he tried to attach it, Natasha was sure that Tony would have that chance soon enough.

Because Barnes hadn’t been able to hide a brief flash of hope at her announcement and she'd seen the way that his fingers twitched every time Rogers got taken down. Indeed the sergeant's admission that he was longing to ride to his captain's rescue was really just confirmation of what the agent knew already and she was quite certain of what his response would be.

And, as usual, Natasha was right, even if the sniper tried to put a slightly braver face on it.

“You’d better not be jerking me around,” Barnes warned, as though agent would take such a vague threat seriously. “But if you are being straight with me, then I’m interested.”

So with the sergeant's agreement on record, Natasha was prepared to schedule a time for the first round of testing because the sooner they got Barnes' new arm attached, the sooner he could learn to fight with it properly.

However, the agent had barely opened her mouth to suggest a meeting before Rogers walked over to join them, the sniper signaling her to silence as his captain neared. Natasha wasn’t sure exactly why Barnes wanted to keep her offer a secret, unless he just feared disappointment, but she would follow his lead for now.

After all, there wouldn’t be any point in fixing Barnes up with a fancy new arm if his lover wouldn't let him use it and the sergeant had more practice than anyone at wrangling Captain America. Though, to be honest, the redhead wasn’t particularly worried about Tony’s work being wasted because her money was on Barnes if it came to an argument. All he had to do was look at Rogers with those big brown eyes of his for the captain to cave completely and he clearly had a vested interest in keeping the other man alive.

So while Natasha would keep an eye on the situation in case she had misread their relationship somehow, right now she had other things to focus on. Like Rogers’ frankly pathetic showing on the obstacle course and so the agent stepped forward to tell her student everything that he’d done wrong.

If this onslaught of criticism also kept the captain from wondering what she and his sergeant had been discussing, well, Natasha had always been a fan of multitasking when it was appropriate.

But even though the agent informed Tony that they would be moving forward with Project Sniper once she’d called a halt to that day’s training, it was almost a week before she managed to bring Barnes in to test SHIELD’s prototype. The agent wanted to be there so that at least one person would understand Tony’s explanations and the rest of her duties didn’t stop just because she needed to give a man his arm back as soon as possible. Besides, Barnes had kept his secrecy so far and the redhead figured that shaking Rogers off him would probably require some careful maneuvering.

However, when Natasha finally carved some time out of her schedule and told Barnes to meet her at Tony’s lab that evening, the sniper promised that his captain wouldn’t interfere. Indeed, the man arrived outside the door at precisely half-past seven and the agent had to wonder about the laughter on his face.

“I told Steve you were showing me a new rifle so we'll have to stop by the range on our way back; I ain't in the habit of lying to my best guy if I can help it, but we might as well see if this works before I piss him off,” the sergeant said, not offering any explanation for his amusement and Natasha didn’t have the time to ask.

Instead she just nodded shortly and replied, “Fair enough. I did pick up another rifle on my last mission – an unlucky Hydra sniper was blocking my escape and his gun turned out to be quite nice.”

With that Natasha ushered Barnes into the lab where Tony was waiting for them and then got out of the way. Staying on the sidelines was generally the safest tactic when the scientist was in one of his inventive moods and despite his lack of experience with the explosive nature of her boss’ hobbies, the sniper looked a little wary when Tony turned that manic gaze on him.

But the agent already knew that Barnes had good survival instincts and she was just getting ready to nudge him forward when he moved on his own.

“So... this is it?” the sergeant asked as he sidled up to the table and looked down at the metal arm that would be his. Natasha thought this final version was rather beautiful in its own way, all sleek lines and understated deadliness, and Barnes would certainly strike terror into the heart of their enemies once Tony sanded those last few rough edges down.

“Yes, this is it. What do you think, buddy?” Tony asked, although he didn’t stop talking long enough for the other man to answer him. “It’s made of Vibranium in part, just like Cap’s shield, though I didn’t actually have enough of that metal to make it pure. Instead it’s an alloy mixture, keeps it light and strong while reducing some of the crazy physics effects that straight Vibranium tends to cause. Seriously, do you have any idea how fascinating your boy’s shield is? Normal metal does not bounce like that. But you need to be able to punch someone without getting thrown in some weird direction so I toned it down a bit. Two parts Vibranium, one part my special double-layered plastic polymer and, and of course my nano-…”

Barnes reached over and shoved his hand over Tony’s mouth, cutting off the stream of technobabble in the middle of a word.

“Look, Stark,” Barnes said into the sudden silence, keeping his hand in place until the scientist stopped trying to talk through the barrier. “I don’t need to know all that technical stuff and I won’t understand half of it anyway. Just tell me how to use it, how not to break it, and what’s going to keep it from falling off in the middle of a fight.”

“Fine, fine,” Tony said once the sergeant released him, twitching his coat back into place disgruntledly. “Ruin all my fun, why don’t you? Do you have any idea how long it’s been since I’ve had the chance to make something like this? Fine motor control tied directly into your nervous system, fully-functioning robotic interface, the automated defense algorithms alone are something that Hydra would kill to get their hands on and…”

Natasha’s boss paused almost guiltily beneath Barnes’ exasperated glare before starting over one more time. “Okay, okay, layman’s terms it is. Once I hook this arm into your nervous system, you’ll be able to use it just by thinking, same as your other one. You won’t feel pain if it gets damaged, though that should be rather difficult, and it’s only going to be slightly stronger than your other one. Any more than that and the rest of your body wouldn’t be able to handle it whenever you threw a punch and I assume you’re not interested in the kind of major surgery that replaces whole swaths of bone.

“Your motor control also won’t be as good as with your right arm because there are limits even to my genius, though if we survive long enough, I might be able to get you close someday. For now, I’ve added a few tricks and other weapons to help compensate and you should be able to shoot just fine.

“Also, you won’t be able to take this thing off again once I attach it properly so you better be sure about this before we proceed. I can do today’s tests without making any permanent changes but the final attachment is going to require surgery. This will be as non-invasive as I can make it – that’s what the nanotech is for – but it’s still going to cause some damage so I have a special harness for you to wear afterward. That way your arm won’t fall off again before your muscles learn to bear its extra weight.

“So... was that simple enough for you?” Tony asked when he had finished, sarcasm warring with his pride in what he'd made.

Not that Barnes seemed to notice the scientist’s snark, or maybe he just doesn’t care; the sniper staring down at his prosthesis pensively. “So I’ll never be able to take it off then?”

“Not without more surgery. But that doesn’t mean you won’t be able to live normally because we do full service cyborgs here. After all, Vibranium doesn’t rust so there’s no need to worry about water – feel free to have as much shower sex as you want, I swear – and it’s light enough that you should get used to it. Really there’s no downside and once the war is over, I can remove it before you retire to a beach house on the coast somewhere.”

“In that case, do your tests and then I guess I need to talk to Steve,” the sergeant said, sitting down and removing his shirt when Tony asked him to. Which was actually rather distracting, for while Rogers had often stripped down during training, this was the first time that Natasha had seen Barnes less than fully dressed since he’d woken up and she had to admit the view was fine.

Admittedly, the stump of his left arm wasn’t the prettiest thing ever, but everyone had scars these days and Barnes’ crooked grin more than made up for it. A grin that grew wider when he caught Natasha staring, the sniper giving her a wink as he settled back in his chair.

It really was a shame that Barnes was unavailable because even if the redhead wasn't interested in romance at the moment, she could have used some stress relief and there weren’t many men who could keep up with her. Not straight men anyway since François was as disgustingly in love with his partner as the sergeant was with Captain America. To be honest, the closest anyone else had come to impressing Natasha was on a mission in Budapest, but it had been several years since the Mad Circus had managed to sneak that agent overseas and she couldn’t seek him out again until the war was done.

So really, she hadn’t been laid properly in ages, and it was no wonder that she was distracted by the way that Barnes’ stomach muscles rippled when he stretched. But then Tony began checking the sergeant’s reactions and the redhead shortly had a much less pleasant problem on her hands.

Although Natasha wasn't particularly fond of laboratories – incredibly vivid flashbacks just one of the many things that the Red Room had given her – she had learned to function in them out of necessity. However, Barnes had apparently missed those lessons given the way that his knuckles were tightening on the armrest of his chair and Tony was too occupied with his tests to notice the danger signs.

Which meant that she needed to step in before her boss managed to trigger a more violent reaction, the redhead snapping her fingers in front of the sergeant's face until he looked at her.

“Hey, Barnes. Focus,” she ordered, relieved to see that it only took a few seconds for his eyes to clear. “Do you need me to get Rogers? I'm sure that he'd come running and I can't have you punching Stark out before he's done.”

“No; I'm fine,” the sniper replied with a firm shake of his head. A nice bit of bravado considering the way his fingers were still twitching and when Tony picked a syringe up next, Barnes gave in and asked, “Would you mind just talking to me so I remember where I am?”

Natasha wasn't exactly a chatty person but she knew how uncertain the sergeant must be feeling to request this much of her. So she wracked her brain for a topic of conversation that would hold his attention, the redhead letting out a chuckle when the obvious answer came to mind. “I have a better idea. Why don't you tell me about Rogers instead? I'm sure you have plenty of stories from your younger years.”

This was definitely the correct tack because Barnes' face positively lit up at her question, his nerves forgotten as he started speaking of the past. And despite Natasha's general refusal to learn anything about Captain America's personal life, she soon found herself far too interested in the stories that his sergeant had to tell.

Because he might have been talking about Captain America, but he was not talking about the Captain America whom history had painted as a hero or even about the man whom Natasha had thought was far too compassionate. Barnes was talking about Steve Rogers as he had been before the serum: small, scrawny and too stubborn for his own good, his illnesses only matched by his determination to do what was right. The sergeant's Steve was bitter and self-deprecating, quick to laugh and quick to anger, and fiercely protective of those who could not protect themselves.

Thus, as Barnes continued, the agent slowly came to understand what he’d meant when he'd told her that Rogers wasn't as nice as she believed and, in truth, she might have judged the captain through the lens of her own prejudice. A novice mistake to be sure, but Natasha had never met anyone in whom kindness and ruthless pragmatism were balanced so equally.

Indeed the agent could understand why the sniper loved Rogers dearly by the time he finished his last tale of the Howling Commandos, just as she now understood why he was so determined to fight at his captain's side.

For Barnes had been protecting the other man from the beginning, shielding Rogers' bleeding heart from the world as best he could until his captain was finally strong enough to change the pain he saw. Or perhaps Natasha had just been spending too much time with the both of them if she was starting to read such romance into everything and the redhead shook such thoughts from her head with a frown. All that mattered was whether or not Captain America would be able to take down Hydra and if Barnes’ stories proved anything, it was that Rogers was far more effective with his lover at his side.

So Natasha turned to her boss once he had finished his testing and raised one questioning eyebrow, “Well? What’s the verdict then?”

“Hmm?” Tony replied distractedly, hands already in the middle of breaking the sniper’s prosthesis down again. “Oh, right. Give me a week to fine tune some things and then we should be good to go. So get out of here already; I’ve got work to do.”

As soon as Barnes heard this, he was up from his chair and halfway out the door in an instant, the redhead catching up to him when he paused in the hall. The sergeant was shifting back and forth restlessly, shaking out the last bit of nerves along with his pins and needles, though he stopped when Natasha halted at his side.

“So… that rifle?” he asked after a moment, his frown warning the agent not to ask if he was all right. Not that she cared, really, but she did need Barnes functional both physically and mentally if she was going to trust him at her back.

Which, in the sergeant’s case, meant that Natasha needed Rogers to throw his support behind this project so that everything could move forward as she had planned. Rogers not Captain America because if the last few hours had taught her anything, it was that Barnes didn’t care about the hero, he cared about the man.

But the agent had also learned that she knew her students even less than she had thought and while the misjudgment rankled, she was smart enough to admit when she was wrong. Natasha truly had no idea how Rogers would react to Project Sniper, though Barnes’ continued silence certainly implied that he would not be happy, and with both of these men superhuman, the crossfire from an argument might level walls.

So for safety’s sake, the redhead would leave the duty of informing his lover to the sergeant because she really didn’t want to have to electrocute Captain America. That would certainly damage whatever trust he had gained in her as a teacher, not to mention putting Rogers out of commission for hours that could be better served in practicing.

Of course, if Barnes refused to step up and tell his lover what SHIELD had offered, she would do what was necessary and as the days passed by without a change, Natasha started to think that it might come to that after all.


“Have you talked to Rogers yet?” she asked over breakfast one morning when the week that Tony had asked for was almost up. That was the agent’s cut off before she would be forced to do something drastic and she read the sniper’s answer in his scowl.

“I’m working on it, okay?” Barnes said, shoulders hunching defensively. “Steve’s just been so happy lately and I don’t want to ruin it.”

“You mean you don’t want Rogers to kick you out of bed when the sex is fantastic,” the redhead retorted, smirking when the sergeant turned to stare at her incredulously. “Oh, come on. You guys trade ‘fuck me’ smiles constantly and don’t think I didn’t see the way our dear captain was limping yesterday. You’re lucky you both heal so quickly or we would have been having some serious discussions about the wisdom of knocking boots constantly. So please don’t tell me that you actually thought that you were hiding your relationship. Because, if so, we need to have a talk about what public kissing means.”

“Don’t worry, Romanoff, I’m old not innocent and I wanted you to know. If I hadn’t staked my claim early, half of SHIELD would be trying to get inside Steve’s pants and I’m not the type to share. I’ve just never heard a dame talk about sex like that before,” Barnes replied and it was only once Natasha breathed a sigh of relief that she realized how neatly the sniper had derailed her original line of questioning.

“Nice try, sergeant. While you are going to be a damn fine spy one of these days, you’re not getting off the hook so easily. If you don’t talk to Steve today, I’ll be forced to tell him myself and we all know how badly that could go.”

Given the way that he winced, Barnes did indeed know exactly what she meant, the sniper holding up his hand in surrender before she could elaborate.

“Okay, okay. There’s no need for drastic measures. I’ll talk to Steve right after breakfast if we can skip this morning’s training for the cause?” He said the last with his best winning smile, eternally hopeful that his charms might work on her this time.

Not that they did, of course, but Rogers had improved enough that a short break wouldn’t kill him and she needed Project Sniper sorted out as soon as possible. So Natasha just shrugged and said, “If you must. Use the storage tunnels off the kitchen and no one should bother you.”

Barnes gave a brief nod to show that he heard her before squaring his shoulders and heading over to Rogers across the room. The blond was deep in a discussion with Frederick, something artsy and boring as far as the agent could tell, but he forgot all about the point he was making when his lover tapped his arm.

Both men did that even though they didn’t seem conscious of it; they gravitated toward each other like they were magnetized and Natasha thought that this was probably one of the things that had made the Howling Commandos so effective in the field. For Barnes and Rogers had a constant sense of each other, one that must have allowed them to appear almost telepathic, and it was this skill that she hoped to tap.

So the agent trailed after the two men as the sergeant led his captain toward the tunnels that she had recommended, slipping into the secondary access corridor when no one was watching her. For while the storage tunnels would keep any random passersby from stumbling in on the coming discussion, the location would also allow her to listen in on them in comfort and this was one conversation that she wanted to hear.

Part curiosity and part pragmatism, Natasha could not deny a hint of anticipation when she settled against the wall of the corridor and Barnes’ voice rang out clear.

“Steve, there’s something I’ve got to talk to you about. And I don’t think it’s going to make you very happy so just hear me out before you say anything.”

“All right, Buck. I can do that.”

There was a pause then, mostly likely Barnes trying to get his thoughts together, though when he finally started talking, the words came out in one long rush.

“You know that my arm is the only thing keeping me from fighting with you against Hydra. But Stark has been working on a replacement for me – like the ones the army used to give people, only way fancier. He says I should be able to control it just like my real one when he’s done with me, but I needed to talk to you first because there’s no point in doing this if you won’t let me watch your back.”

“Bucky, I… I don’t… You knew I wouldn’t like it but you did it anyway?”

“It was Romanoff’s idea; I didn’t even know this kind of thing was possible. But if I had, I would have talked to Stark myself. I can’t… I can’t let you go out there without me; I thought I could but not if there’s another way. So I need you not to be mad at me. Say it’s okay?

“I don’t know if I can, Buck. I’m not angry; I just – why didn’t you tell me that this was still eating at you before now?”

“What was the point? You couldn’t do anything about it and I figured you had enough crap to deal with without adding my whining on top of it. And then when Romanoff mentioned her idea, I didn’t know whether or not it would actually pan out. There wasn’t any point in having this fight again if I was just going to have to watch you march into battle without me anyway.”

“I’m not- Bucky.”

“See, this is why I didn’t want to tell you. You get that look on your face, like I’m breaking your heart, and I refuse to feel guilty about protecting you.”

“You shouldn’t feel guilty; I don’t want you to feel guilty, but you have to let me protect you too. Even if you can take care of yourself, that doesn’t stop me from worrying and I can’t help wanting you here safe and sound. I don’t want you to get hurt, Bucky. I love you and you mean everything to me.”

“I love you too and that’s why you have to let me do this. If you go out there without me and you die, I’ll never forgive myself because we both know that SHIELD cares more about defeating Hydra than seeing you home again and you’re not expendable. Not to me.”

There was a long silence then, long enough that Natasha began to worry that they’d moved off down the corridor and she would need to run after them. But apparently this pause was just Rogers mulling over his lover’s arguments since, after a minute or so, the captain let out a sigh and said, “Okay, Buck. I’m behind you. Just remember that you’re not expendable to me either because I don’t what I’ll do if something goes wrong and you don’t make it back.”

“That’s an easy one, Steve; you’ll grieve, rage and burn the bastards to the ground. That’s what I’m going to do if you dare to die on me out there. But at least this way we’ll both have better odds of coming home again. Stark has been trying to sell me on a house by the ocean and I think what's left of Brooklyn sounds rather nice.”

The topic of their conversation switched to lighter matters after that, but Natasha had heard enough to know that she could move forward with her plans. Barnes would be getting his arm and SHIELD would be getting the fighter that it needed, someone who would do anything to see Hydra turned to ash.


“All right, Sergeant, are you ready for your first real mission? Make sure to bring that arm of yours back in one piece for me.”

“Just the arm, Stark?” Barnes replied with a smirk as he finished strapping on his gear, the metal of his arm gleaming beneath the lights before he covered it. “I should have known that you only loved me for my robot body parts.”

“Sorry, buddy. The rest of you belongs to the Capsicle over there and even I’m not crazy enough to try to steal a boyfriend from Captain America. Besides, I prefer my partners a bit more curvaceous if you know what I mean,” Tony retorted with a wave toward Rogers, who was hovering over his sergeant worriedly. He hadn’t been happy when Natasha had said that she wanted to take Barnes out on his own, but he had seen reason eventually.

For while the sniper had recovered nicely from his surgery, there was only so much that he could learn under controlled conditions and SHIELD needed to know how his arm would perform out in the field before allowing him to be part of their end game when it went down.

So the agent had picked a relatively easy mission: to infiltrate one of Hydra’s minor production facilities and discover whether there was any truth to the rumors of lethal new tech being developed by their enemies. SHIELD didn’t need any surprises when the last mission started and the tentative launch date was only a few weeks away. That would give War Machine, the Mad Circus, Rocinha and all of the other resistance groups enough time to solidify their positions without tipping off their enemy and this was a strike that needed to be unified.

This was a strike that needed to win the war once and for all because the Resistance simply did not have the resources to continue this stalemate for another century. Yet Natasha was more certain that they would win than she had been for a long time and she owed much of her hope to the three men standing before her now.

“Speaking of Captain America, you need a codename,” the scientist said as he finished up a few last minute adjustments to Barnes’ left hand and then closed the access port again. “All of SHIELD's active agents have a codename and we’ve finally made you one of us.”

“Really, isn't that a bit old-fashioned?” Rogers asked with a grin, clearly remembering the ribbing that he had received about the costume that SHIELD had found him in. The Resistance tended more towards the practical than the symbolic and none of them would have been caught dead with such a large target on their chest.

However, every real agent knew that code names were practical where costumes were not and Tony wouldn’t be swayed from his mission now. “Sometimes you old guys had the right idea and it’s always better if your enemies don’t know who you really are. We can leave you as Captain Fantastic America or whatever since your legend is part of your advantage, but your buddy here needs something too. Something that will strike fear into the hearts of our enemies.”

“Just call me the Soldier, that’s what I am,” Barnes said with a shrug and if Tony hadn’t shot down this suggestion immediately, Natasha would have done it herself.

“We said fear, Barnes, not boredom. You need Hydra agents to whisper your name when something moves in the shadows and waste their bullets flinching at the wind. Men don’t call me the Black Widow because they want to marry me,” the redhead explained, her smile somewhat terrifying judging by the look on Rogers face. “I admit that some of SHIELD’s code names are slightly pathetic, but if you’re going to work with me then you need a proper epithet. Although, Soldier isn’t a bad start if you make it a bit more interesting.”

“We could call you the Bloody Soldier,” Tony offered with a smirk as the four of them left the armory.

“No, that sounds like I’m dying. Or a really angry Brit.”

“The Robot Soldier,” was the scientist’s next suggestion, to which Barnes raised one eyebrow incredulously.

“I’m not your sidekick, Stark. If I’m anyone’s sidekick it’s Steve or Natasha and they both have better names than that.”

“The Ancient Soldier.”

“See, now I know you’re just messing with me,” the sergeant said, before lunging forward to ruffle Tony’s hair in revenge. The scientist gave an undignified squeak at this, shouting “my perfect locks” and then running to hide behind Rogers where Barnes couldn’t get at him.

Honestly, they were acting more like boys than men at the moment, but Natasha could forgive the sergeant for needing to burn off a bit of nervous energy considering the way that his last mission had turned out. Given how he and Rogers had been eyeing each other, the redhead just counted herself lucky that the two men weren’t making out against the wall and she trusted that Barnes would settle down once they began.

“How about the Winter Soldier?” Rogers offered when the other men had finished squabbling like children, his companions turning to look at him in surprise.

“Bucky deserves a good codename if it will keep him safer,” the captain said into the silence, his shoulders hunching defensively beneath their stares. “And he’s the only reason that I used to survive the winters half the time.”

“You… just… You are the most…”

Rogers being ridiculously sweet again was apparently enough to ruin his lover’s self-control, Barnes slamming him back against the wall and kissing him thoroughly. But even if the captain’s explanation wasn’t exactly something to make Hydra cower, Natasha thought that he’d hit on something rather nice anyway. Because every Russian knew that winter wasn’t something that you defeated, it was something that you endured, and you never knew when it might decide to claim your life.

So when the two men finally came up for air, Natasha interjected pointedly: “Winter Soldier it is. Now, can we please get on with it?”

“Sorry, Romanoff,” Barnes replied sheepishly, though he didn't actually move away from his captain until Rogers nudged him the side.

“Go on, Buck. The sooner you find out all of Hydra's secrets the sooner you can come back again,” the other man said with another sweet smile, to which his sergeant responded with a sigh.

“All right, let's go be super spies.”

The sniper might have sounded even less enthusiastic about the mission if he had known just how long the trip would take. After all, there was a reason that Natasha knew far too many games for long road trips and Barnes was about to get a crash course in them because the base that SHIELD needed them to investigate was located in what had been Liechtenstein, just outside the Hydra stronghold of Vaduz. All of Europe's small republics had become centers of Hydra influence, the group's generals using the wealth of these countries to build grand outposts full of forbidden luxuries.

They didn't care about the remoteness or the harshness of the scenery; why should they when they flew everywhere? But SHIELD Grenoble was trying to stay beneath Hydra's radar as much as possible until the last mission started and there would be no stolen helicopters this time around.

Instead Barnes and Natasha slid into one of SHIELD's special vehicles, designed to look as junky as every other civilian car but far sturdier underneath. However, the added metal plating and various hidden weapons didn't make the drive any faster, the usual five hours stretching into six as the agents were forced to detour around blockades and the random checks that Hydra liked to make.

While there was a fake travel permit in the glove box of the car just in case, the redhead preferred to rely on that only for emergencies. Frederick's work was good, but Hydra had a habit of changing the permit design at erratic intervals so as to squeeze new fees out of its citizens. To be caught with an outdated permit, or worse with none at all, was to invite any punishment that Hydra's soldiers chose to execute and they were known for being inventive in their cruelty.

Just one more way that Pierce kept his iron hand around the throat of Europe's people and Natasha knew it was the same everywhere. Hydra was a sickness, a cancer within the heart of the world, and no one would be safe until it was burnt out. How could they be safe when places such as the Red Room flourished in dark corners and secret hideaways?

So Natasha drove and Barnes proved himself a decent traveling companion, not given overly to talking but competitive enough to hold his own when the agent became bored. She won, of course, but the sergeant put up a good fight before losing gracefully.

Once the redhead had soundly trounced Barnes a few times, she turned the discussion back to the mission at hand. There would be no attempt to talk their way into the Vaduz base, though some of Natasha's most successful interrogations had been conducted with a red dress and a glass of wine. But this was meant to be the sergeant's initiation as well as a fact-finding mission and his pretty smile wasn't the sort that most Hydra agents liked.

Instead this would be a straight infiltration, silence and stealth their weapons as much as violence, so Natasha pulled the car down a sidetrack once they neared Vaduz. She hid the vehicle in a cluster of thick pine trees before tossing one of Frederick's canvases over the top of it, a few more scattered branches and tattered leaves finishing the job.

Then she sheathed her last few daggers before strapping on her mask, leaving the Black Widow where Natasha Romanoff had stood. Next to her Barnes did the same, stripping the covering off his arm to reveal the gleaming metal in all its stark deadliness.

What the Winter Soldier lost in stealth, he would gain in intimidation and the enhancements to his arm worked better when not covered by anything. So the two agents made their way toward the base, slipping through the underbrush so as not to be noticed by Hydra's guards. There were more of them than should have been assigned to such a small outpost, evidence that something important might truly be hidden here.

But a few of Tony's special darts and the Black Widow's garrote took care of those guards that could not be avoided and soon the two of them had slipped over the walls. This base was laid out much the same as every other that Natasha had infiltrated over the years, barring the unusual increase in security.

Elite guards and dogs patrolling while the latest technology blocked every door and window, some alarms that even Stark's scrambler had trouble with. However, the Winter Soldier's arm was truly a thing of beauty and it wasn't long before the two agents had made it inside one of the further warehouses. An empty warehouse but the Black Widow could see remnants of an arsenal, scraps of metal and wiring scattered around the room.

“Hydra was building something. We need to find out what,” Barnes whispered over her shoulder, the other agent watching the exits while she gathered a few samples to take back to SHIELD.

But they needed more than samples so Natasha nodded the Winter Soldier toward the inner door, allowing him to take point this time. Might as well let him work on his hand-to-hand skills and indeed the sergeant dropped the first guard with brutal efficiency. Barnes knocked the man's gun aside and wrapped his left arm around his target's throat in one smooth motion, no time for him to cry out before a quick jerk broke his neck.

The two agents hid the body and moved on deeper into the complex, leaving a trail of corpses in their wake. While the Black Widow sometimes tried to show mercy to the lowest ranks of Hydra's soldiers, she had no pity for the elites who had gained their positions with her comrades' blood. For promotions within Hydra were counted solely off of kill count and the elite strike forces required at least a hundred confirmed bodies to consider anyone. A hundred just to start and even if Natasha's tally was far higher, she was wiping the names off one by one.

Because two wrongs might not make a right, but destroying Hydra would go far towards balancing out the red in her ledger, the agent clawing her way back to humanity life by life. Perhaps this was an odd way to think of it, but the Black Widow could not change her nature; she was a weapon and the best that she could hope for was to kill only those who deserved to die.

The Winter Soldier was just as ruthless – just as vicious as she'd expected – and his smile grew a little more feral with every blow he struck. There was an endless well of anger there and whatever else that might say about him, Natasha knew that she had chosen right.

Barnes kicked one last soldier straight through the door that he was guarding before silencing his groaning, the Black Widow following him into the room. Half office and half lab, this chamber reminded the agent of Tony's personal quarters and whatever secrets this base was hiding, Natasha was certain that they would find them here.

So the sergeant started going through the papers scattered across the desk haphazardly while she booted up the computer, eyes cataloging the signs of a hasty exit strewn everywhere. Whatever Hydra had been doing, they had finished it in a hurry and when the computer finished loading, the agent's blood went cold.

“Widow? Are you making any sense of this?” the Winter Soldier asked over her shoulder as she skimmed through the files and Natasha almost wished that she could tell him no. But the agent did understand it; she understood it far too well.

“They've been chipping us; chipping everyone through the drinking water,” the Black Widow whispered in shock as she fumbled SHIELD's drive into the computer to try and copy as much data as she could. “Tracking our movements through nano-chips in our bloodstreams to find out who is loyal to their cause.”

“They can do that? Then why hasn't Hydra wiped out the Resistance years ago?” That was the pivotal question and it took some more digging for the agent to find the answer that she sought.

Hydra might have been tacking the world's population for years now, but even its computers could not analyze the habits of millions easily. It had needed something more – a way to pick out its enemies from the masses and a way to cut them down instantly. That's what this base had been building, what this base had been meant to study, and when she saw the name assigned to the project, the agent recoiled back a step.

“We need to go right now,” the Black Widow said sharply, yanking her drive out of the computer and turning toward the door. Natasha needed to inform SHIELD of Hydra's plan so that Tony could find a way to stop them from succeeding but their exit was already compromised.

Because the agents had barely taken a step before a voice rang out, words echoing from the cold concrete walls.

“Sergeant Barnes and my dear Natalia; this is my lucky day. Two of my favorite test subjects come home at last.”

The voice was familiar, far too familiar, and the agent felt the Winter Soldier go stiff at her back. But she could not concern herself with him at the moment because that voice was the soundtrack of Natasha’s childhood, of the years that she had tried so hard to put behind her, and in this instant, it all came rushing back. The lessons, the tests, the endless training and unsympathetic hands. The Red Room was all that she had ever known, all that she had needed, and she had killed more people before her sixteenth birthday than most did throughout their lives.

Indeed Natalia had been born in blood, drank it and dreamed of it, until one day she woke up drowning and knew that she couldn't do this anymore. There had been no moment of epiphany, no sudden revelation that Hydra was evil, just a deep abiding hate for what she saw in her mirror.

She had hated herself and the Red Room and her handlers and no one had been worse than the man who ran it all. The man who smiled at her as though she was no more than a tool of his making, one that must be punished for disobedience and honed when it grew dull.

The man who was talking now, even though he should be more than ten years gone. But what stepped through the door was not Arnim Zola, at least not as he used to be. This was a robot or perhaps some sort of cyborg, huge and lumbering even as Zola’s face peered out from its chest. Zola’s because there was no mistaking the cruelty in his eyes.

“Truly, Barnes, it is delightful to see you again. I thought that you would have been long dead by now, but perhaps my experiments were more successful than I initially believed. You were the only subject to survive, you know, even if you did not share either Captain America or the Red Skull's drastic shift in DNA,” the screen with Zola's face said proudly, ignoring the Winter Soldier's snarl of disgust. “Indeed my experiments with you and your fellow prisoners paved the way toward the creation of such beauties as my dear Natalia here.”

“That is no longer my name,” the Black Widow growled; Zola always far too good at getting beneath her skin.

“No, you chose to throw your talents away on the Resistance, but I am giving you one last chance to change your mind. Come back to me, both of you, and you may yet survive. I can give you any luxury that you might desire, upgrade that pathetic arms of yours and keep you safe when the hammer falls again. Otherwise you must die because this is such an important moment for Hydra, for the triumph of science over physical brutality, and I’m afraid that I cannot allow you to ruin it.”

The Winter Soldier reacted to this threat by pulling the rifle off his back and aiming it at Zola, his eyes burning with enough fury for the both of them. Yet as much as she hated the scientist, Natasha had more questions and her firm on Barnes' arm kept him from firing.

“We will stop you,” she said, putting as much conviction as she could into the words. “Your preparations have yet to be finished and SHIELD has plans of its own. We will stop this madness before you can destroy everything.”

“I'm afraid the information on that computer is rather outdated, Natalia,” Zola corrected almost gently. “Our drones have been shipped to the far corners of this world over the last few months; their guns ready and waiting for the moment when my algorithm tells them where to strike. It has already been uploaded into the system, you see, and in seventy-two hours your foolish resistance will be nothing more than bloody smears upon the ground.”

The scientist smiled at his former subjects with overwhelming condescension as an alarm began to ring out through the base and so the Winter Soldier shot him, only a moment before the Black Widow would have done the same.

The two agents shared one panicked look before dashing toward the door, leaving their past behind in a crumpled mass of gears and sparking wires on the floor. If Zola had spoken truth then the Resistance was running on borrowed time already and Natasha could almost hear the clock ticking down. So she didn't bother with subtlety any longer, relying on surprise and ruthlessness to see them free.

For with the alarms already sounding, there was no need to keep their weapons holstered and Hydra's soldiers dropped like moths beneath a flame. Nearly as many fell beneath the Black Widow's knives as were slain by the Winter Soldier's bullets, every strike a precisely placed killing blow.

Indeed, the infiltration that had taken them the better part of an hour was reversed in twenty minutes, the two agents bursting through the main doors and then sprinting toward their vehicle. Natasha spent the entire trip back redlining the engine, no longer worried about drawing Hydra's eye. While she did continue to avoid the larger blockades, the one squad that tried to pull them over regretted that impulse dearly and they made it back to Grenoble in record time.

The agent only slowed down once they neared the city, unwilling to lead Hydra to SHIELD's main base even now.

“We're coming in hot, Iron Man, and the news isn't good. You need to call everyone back in right now,” Natasha warned as soon as she was in range to call the base, one of SHIELD's informants meeting them at the edge of the city to ensure that the path was clear.

She and Barnes must have been a sight when they walked into the conference room, both armed to the teeth and decked out in full gear. Everything but their masks and while that hadn't been the most comfortable drive, they'd both had other things on their mind. But while their dress might have been intimidating, the sudden silence that fell over the room on their entrance was something that Natasha was perfectly willing to take advantage of.

So the redhead went over to the projector and plugged in the drive with their stolen data, Barnes walking over to Rogers and laying a reassuring hand on his arm. Though the sergeant just shook his head when the captain raised one questioning eyebrow, turning his attention back to Natasha as the first of Hydra's files appeared upon the screen.

“What the Hell?” Tony exclaimed, making sense of the images much faster than anyone else in the room. He ran to the agent's side and began pulling up more files, muttering furiously to himself as he took them in. “How did they- the water? Those fucking bastards... probably could detect it... I wonder if the Hulk or the icicles have them too – a foreign intrusion in the blood should have been destroyed. Otherwise Banner would have noticed it. But maybe I can...”

While her boss was having a scientific epiphany, Natasha explained what they had found to the rest of the room, SHIELD's other agents reacting with as much horror as she had done. They all knew what this meant; it meant the end of everything and there was no hope in her colleagues’ eyes. Because the Resistance was not ready and there seemed to be nothing left to do but die.

Yet even if the task was hopeless, Captain America would not give up without a fight and the mood of the entire room shifted when Rogers stood up again, “So attack now. You've been telling me about this Mission Reaper for weeks; move the timeline up. If we can infiltrate Pierce's stronghold before the drones are activated, then we may still have a chance.”

“But we're not ready,” Tony protested, snapped out of his scientific trance by the captain's words. “I can probably counteract their chips eventually, but not in a couple days, there's just no way. And the drones, that's a whole 'nother deal. Fuck, just contacting the other groups will take hours at least.”

“We don’t have a choice, Tony. We go now or we die,” Natasha said and eventually her boss sighed heavily.

“I guess we do. All right then; François – see if you can contact the other Resistance groups. Use the uplink in my office and have Jarvis help you out. Focus on the main ones for now – if we can get through to War Machine, the White Lotus, Rocinha and the rest then they should be able to contact the smaller groups in their areas. Natasha, you know our plan of attack; get everyone prepped and see if your informants can get in touch with Fury at Pierce's headquarters. We need him and the others to get us inside when the moment comes. Banner, you're with me, I'm going to see what I can do to counteract Zola's algorithm and sabotage those fucking drones.”

So the meeting broke up as SHIELD's agents ran off to do as he'd ordered and Natasha knew that no one would be sleeping much over the next few days. While the Resistance had been planning this mission for months, moving up the timeline would be a nearly impossible task, particularly when communication was so unreliable.

But SHIELD was out of time; Natasha was out of time and she could only hope that Captain America and the Winter Soldier would be enough to see them through.

Part VI: Blood

Tags: angst, avengers, canon!au, fic, humor, minor pov, other slash, post-series, rewriting history*, steve/bucky
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