Steve hastily formed some simple commands: Trust your team. Be wary of SHIELD. Bucky is alive. Forget this encounter. He paused, then added, Let Peggy go. Live in the present.
The last two commands were a deliberate, difficult choice, but one that needed to be given. Peggy had moved on and lived her life – found love, created a family, founded SHIELD. Her legacy was already written. But until Cap truly accepted that and actually lived his own life in the present instead of yearning for what might have been, then he would be just as lonely and alone as Steve was.
Cap collapsed, dazed, as the scepter froze him and his thoughts. Steve quickly moved away, squashing the feeling of guilt nagging at his conscious. This was for the greater good, even though he had hated that phrase and the character of Albus Dumbledore and altruistic attitude in the Harry Potter series. Now, to find Nat –
Steve froze as the woman in question stepped out of the shadows. He had gone down a few floors before cutting across an empty office floor, intending to descend down the back stair case to the alley outside where Tony and Scott originally were supposed to be waiting.
“Natasha.” He said warily.
She tsked. “So familiar with a woman you only met a few days ago.”
That made him grin. “We did not meet for the first time on the helicarrier, Romanov. You were the ‘nurse’ in the room when I first woke up.”
Her eyes widened in surprise. “How did you…”
He deliberately ran his appreciative gaze over her body, still encased in her Widow stealth suit.
“Curves are still the same.”
She snorted. “Okay, that just proved that you’re an imposter.” She said, but he heard the amusement in her tone. “Cap would never be so forward with any woman.”
Steve shrugged. “I’ve matured a bit. He will too. Once he gets to be more comfortable with everything.”
“How much is a bit?”
“You’re from 2023?” She said dubiously. “I’m assuming for a reason. Did you accomplish it?”
“Finishing up the secondary mission now.”
“So you meant to find me specifically, or did you already talk to yourself?” She winced.
“Don’t think about it,” Steve advised. “It’ll just give you a headache.”
To anyone else, this conversation was stilted and short, two adversaries reluctant to give information. For Steve and Natasha, this was their MO, though she knew it not. Mission info was given in short bursts, half in code in order to prevent anyone listening from understanding or interfering.
Of course, she surprised him by dropping the façade.
“So, what did you come back to tell me, and how will this affect my timeline?”
“Too much to tell in one sitting.” He replied. “You need to have a mind like a steel trap – or a computer – to process it all.”
She nodded. She’d check with JARVIS later that night. “Give me the cliff notes version then.”
“Let’s start with ghost stories. Funny how fifty year old tales already have a grain of truth to them.” Steve mused, watching her eyes narrow. “He moves silently and fast. Rumor has it that he fell off of a bridge to his death, and was found by evil men and forced to do their bidding.”
“Just tell me, Rogers. We don’t have much time.”
“The Winter Soldier is actually Sargent James Buchanan Barnes. Bucky. My best friend.”
“The man whom got captured with the rest of his unit and you went AWOL to find and rescue?”
Steve winced. “One and the same. Currently a brainwashed assassin for Hydra, which, incidentally, has been growing inside SHIELD.”
“That’s not funny.”
“Not laughing. Hydra has infiltrated SHIELD. The rot goes all the way up, Nat. All the way to Director Pierce. Maybe higher. Sitwell, STRIKE team Delta. Some of the crew. Watch your six and keep your head down.”
“What about Barnes?”
“Cognitive recalibration.” He grinned faintly. “And Cap’s voice should be enough to bring him back. But there’s a book of trigger words.” He shook his head. “Make sure Tony doesn’t find out about that or go to Siberia. JARVIS will explain.”
“Cap will tear the world apart in order to save Bucky. The Avengers are stronger together than apart. And there are bigger things to stop before Bucky.
Ask Bruce – subtly – about the Ultron program, and suggest to Tony that he may be on the right track but that the scepter is warped and the stone perverted. Thor needs to take it to be cleansed before it can be used for Ultron.”
Steve’s jaw tightened. “Tell Thor – and Tony – that the madman in their dreams is named Thanos. And that Thor needs to go for the head, when the time comes.”
“Why trust me with all of this?”
“You’re the bravest, strongest person I know.” He said. “Besides, I have faith that you, with that logical, pragmatic, female brain of yours will hit ‘em all where it counts when it counts. I didn’t trust you once, and everything went to hell. So I’m doing it now – trusting you with everything, Nat. My best friend. My family. My life, and hopefully, my heart.” He smirked. “Well, Cap’s heart.”
“He’s still a kid.”
“He’s a man, and a soldier. He’ll adjust.” Steve corrected. “And the interest is there, Nat. Always has been. You just have to make the first move.” He paused. “Probably a second and third one too.”
“He is nearly flawless. The almost perfect weapon.” Madame studied the man standing at parade rest in front of her, his grey blue gaze staring straight ahead. She could feel the contained energy, coiled, like a snake. “It is ironic that our first successful super soldier serum worked not on one of our local comrades, but on an American soldier,” she mused, and watched the stormy grey irises flicker, once. “James Buchanan Barnes. Sargent, sniper, and best friend of Captain America himself.” She laughed cruelly. “Perhaps we shall send you to hunt him down, make sure he sees who exactly kills him.”
“He is flawless, Madame.” The weedy scientist hovering at her side murmured.
Madame pursed her lips. “Romanova.”
“Madame.” A husky feminine voice replied quietly from the shadows.
“Enlighten this man as to why our weapon is nearly flawless.”
“Weapons can be turned against us, especially one with no fail safe, no off switch or safety.” The girl murmured. “He is, at his core, still a loyal American, a good man.” Her lip lifted slightly. “Good men are always fallible.”
“What do you suggest?”
“A reset.” She replied. “A set of trigger words that wipes his memories of his time as the Winter Soldier and brings back Barnes. A memory wipe in reverse, if you will. You cannot confess what you do not remember. Such a fail safe will protect our comrades, if the Asset ever falls into enemy hands.” She met Madame’s steady cold gaze. “I would suggest that these words be in a language that is not our mother tongue or English, to lessen the possibility of the trigger being pulled inadvertently.”
Madame’s smile widened. “Excellent…”