The Hell You Don't
Most mornings, very early, before the sun was even up, he went down a little side street and into a narrow cafe where men sat at long, scarred-wood tables and drank Turkish coffee and read the newspaper and smoked their heads off. Everyone there was trying to wake up as much as possible, because sometime after the sun came up a dirty white van would pull up outside and the overseers would pick the strongest-looking men to work on construction sites all around the city. He got his coffee and a buttered roll on a plate and slid onto the bench, then flipped a cigarette into his mouth and lit it. He pulled out his newspaper. He smoked and ate by turns.
This was his favorite part of the day, this sitting in silence with other men, almost like he was a person again. Some of the men talked but most were silent, like him; tired, like him; with thick lines on their faces and exhausted bags under their eyes. He didn't have what you'd call friends, but he had a kind of non-verbal understanding with a guy they called Paddy, which was ridiculous because he was from Bangladesh. Paddy was a skinny kid with dark eyes, and when he'd walked into the cafe for the first time there had been a dismissive ripple among the men: this kid's not gonna make it. But then the van came, and when it pulled away again, bouncing them on its ripped seats and bad shocks, Paddy was inside. The little shit had muscled his way past guys twice his size and sat crouched up at the front near the overseer, wary, his whole body tense. The next morning there had been a couple of resentful glances thrown Paddy's way, and when he saw two guys rise from their seats and move towards the kid, all puffed up and threatening, he stood up, too. They looked over at him and sat down again. So he sat down, too, and took a drag off his smoke.
He never worried about getting picked; they always picked him. The first day he turned up, the overseer's eyes had slid over him, so he'd reached out and gripped the back of the van with his gloved left hand and lifted its rear end clear off the ground - grunting, just a little, to make it seem harder than it was. Then he'd put it down again. He'd got picked that day, and every day since, and he liked the work: physical labor, cash money at the end of the day, and no questions asked.
He was on his third cup of coffee and reading the newspaper - a story about a suspicious fire at a nightclub - when he felt the atmosphere in the cafe change. He looked up. A nervous little man was standing at the door - thin, balding, green parka - and looking around. Not gonna make it, he thought dismissively, and went back to his paper. A moment later he raised his head, surprised: the little man had come to sit across the table from him and was looking at him: hands knotted in fear, face desperate.
"Please don't kill me, they have my little girl," the man said all at once, in a rush, in Romanian.
He stubbed out his cigarette. Then he waved his hand; go on; I'm listening.
"He - outside - they told me to give you this," the man said, and put a thick brown envelope on the table. He pushed it over with a sharp little motion and yanked his hand back like he thought it might explode. "They--" he swallowed; he could barely speak, "--want you to kill somebody. Not me," he added hastily. "Somebody else," he said, and gestured toward the envelope.
He looked hard at the man - the real thing, he concluded; telling the truth - then reached for the envelope and pulled it toward him. Money, a thick wad of euros: "There's more where that came from," the man hastily added, "I'm supposed to tell you that." A claim ticket, bearing the name of an unfamiliar train station somewhere in Nizhny Novgorod, the old Gorky. A newspaper clipping from the International Herald Tribune, "Russia to stage massive WW2 parade," an event that was apparently to coincide with the dedication of a new Victory memorial. He scanned the column: the event was to be attended by various dignitaries and luminaries, including - unusually enough in these turbulent times - representatives from the UK, France, and the United States. Behind this, a glassine envelope containing a photograph. A face, a man.
He pulled the photograph out of its envelope and looked at it. He looked at it for a long time.
Then he tucked everything back into the envelope, slid it into his jacket, and stood up. The man jerked back and stared at him. "These men who have your daughter," he said. "Take me," and followed the little man out of the cafe and into the cold, clear morning.
The battered van was just pulling up, but he walked past it, following the man in the green parka down the cracked and weedy pavement toward a dark sedan with tinted windows. The man in the green parka was pleading with a guy in a dark suit, who suddenly saw him coming and pulled a gun. Laughable, really, but he didn't seem to have much laughter left in him these days. He ignored the man's increasingly sharp warnings - "Stop! Stop! Fuck, I mean it, I'll--" gripped the barrel of the gun with his metal hand, and bent it out of shape. "I know you mean it," he said, almost kindly, then yanked the twisted gun from the guy's hand and whacked the side of his stupid head with it. Idiot.
The man in the green parka was cowering, arms covering his head, eyes moving quickly between him and the gunman and the trunk of the car. He heard it then, the muffled sobbing, and went around to the trunk even as the driver's door opened and a second man slid out and stalked him with a second gun. Morons, and he crooked his fingers under the rim of the trunk and yanked it open, breaking the latch. A girl of maybe ten was inside, staring up at him in terror, her eyes wet - she was wearing a school uniform and clutching a silver backpack. He reached down and helped her out; a moment later her father grabbed her by the arm and the two of them were tearing away, full speed, down the street.
He slammed the trunk, crunching the metal down hard, and flung his hand up to block the point-blast shot of gunfire. Then he grabbed the surprised man with both hands and slammed him face down into the car - once, twice: three times - before standing him up again dizzily.
"You've got the wrong guy," he said. "I don't do that anymore."
The man stared at him, blood streaming from a gash on his forehead. "The hell you don't. "
He studied the man's face. "You work for Constantin."
The man nodded, but then his partner came over and said, in a strangled voice, "No."
"You work for Constantin," he sighed, and shoved the man toward the driver's side door. "Drive," and he was just getting into the car himself when he felt a hand on his shoulder and turned, prepared for violence, only to find himself staring into a pair of serious black eyes.
"Everything all right? Do you need help?" Paddy asked.
For a wonder he found himself smiling. "Nah," he said. "I've got this. Nabil," and Nabil Goswami blinked at him in surprise. He was still standing in the road as they pulled away.
The gangster Andrei Constantin lived behind a high wall. "You're not getting out of here alive," the man beside him said, thickly, as they drove through the gate; his nose was broken and blood was running down down his face from where his forehead had split on the trunk of the car.
Constantin was sitting behind an enormous desk eating a plate of cold chicken, tomatoes and cheese. He looked up. He put his knife and fork down. "So it is true," he said. "You exist. I thought you were a myth, like the vampire or the werewolf." Constantin looked him up and down. "And you are here, in Bucharest. The Winter Soldier."
He slammed the envelope onto the desk with his metal hand. "You sent this to me?"
"Yes," Constantin said, clear-eyed, "but you should hear what I have to say before you kill me."
Constantin sat back in his leather chair, which creaked. "I am only the messenger, but the message is this. If you do what you have been asked, I will give you ten times what you have already received - euros, dollars, whatever you like. You will get papers, the best ones: US, EU, Russia, wherever. You can start over entirely; live anywhere in the world. No one will look for you or bother you; your name will be quietly purged from all international wanted lists. And then you will truly fade into legend."
Tempting. But he was getting the shape of this, and he didn't like it one bit. "And if I refuse?"
Constantin shrugged. "Then you refuse. If they could have forced you, they would have forced you; instead you are a fly they are trying to catch with honey. Do you not like the offer?"
He ignored that question. "Why me?"
Constantin laughed. "I am not your client, but even so I can answer such a stupid question: because you can. In fact, I believe you nearly did; the whole world has seen the footage that has come out of Washington. To be honest with you," Constantin added, leaning forward and lowering his voice, "I bear no ill will toward the man in question; in fact, I feel toward him a powerful nostalgia. His name brings excitement to my heart, just as it did when I was a child." He pressed a meaty hand to his chest to show his sincerity. "I will be sorry to hear of his passing. That said, if it were I who wanted him dead, I should not be inclined to waste money on second-raters. Perhaps three people in the world are capable of such thing. Perhaps three."
That was true. That made things complicated. "I'll do it," he said finally, "but not for you."
Constantin blanched a bit. "I can't tell you who the client is."
"I know who they are." He tucked the envelope back into his pocket. "Tell them I'll do it, but I want a meeting the day before, and full payment: cash and documents."
Constantin nodded slowly, swallowing. "I will tell them, but--"
"I'll be in touch," he said.
He spent 5000 rubles on an expensive haircut that left his long hair styled rather than hanging, and another 50,000 on clothes - wool trousers, silk shirt, good shoes - that meant he wouldn't look out of place in the lounge of the Grand Hotel on Ostozehnka. He got there an hour early and claimed a seat at the bar, where he drank vodka and smoked, having traded his Romanian smokes for a pack of Marlboro Reds.
He wasn't entirely sure she would come, but at 7 on the dot she appeared, stunning in a blue silk dress and heels. She wore a glamor-girl's smile but her eyes were sharp and canny, and he felt rather than saw her spot him. She hesitated for only a moment before making for him, and so he got up and crossed to her, greeting her as if they knew each other, kissing her on both cheeks in the French style. Then he drew her to the high-backed gold velvet stool beside his and ordered her a drink with a wave of his hand.
"So it really is you," Natasha said, smiling, her game face on. "I didn't think it could be."
He leaned in and murmured, "Hear me out before you kill me. After that, I don't really care."
Her smiled brightened a bit, like he'd just said something funny. "Be quick."
He pulled the envelope out of his pocket and gave it to her: the Euros, the clipping, the photograph - everything except the claim ticket; he still needed that. "I've been hired to kill Steve Rogers," he said. "At Gorky - Nizhny Novgorod, 2 days from now. I'll go there tomorrow, check out the site, the layout. Probably do it from up high with a long-range rifle."
She was good, she kept up her cocktail party expression even as she flicked through the items in the brown envelope, then tucked it into her purse. "Why are you telling me this?"
He smiled briefly into his glass of vodka. "Simple," he said. "I want you to kill me before I do it."
She tilted her head to one side, her red hair falling across her shoulder. "Well, okay," she said, "but it'll cost you," and that made him laugh for real. Her smile shifted subtly and became real, too: she was Natalia Romanova of the Red Room, the most famous Black Widow of them all.
"Seriously, though," she said. "What's it about? This," she said, and nodded unobtrusively at her handbag. "It smells like CIA to me."
"Yeah. Me, too," he agreed. "Kelly's wing." Deputy CIA Director Edward Kelly had never much cared for - well, for the SSR, for SHIELD, Nick Fury, the Avengers, any of it; Steve Rogers most of all.
She was nodding to herself already, spooling it all out. "If they kill him in Russia, they can blame the Winter Soldier, Putin, create an international incident; that's a win-win for everybody. Plus they'll be rid of the boy scout : do you have any idea how many CIA missions Steve's torpedoed?" He shrugged; he didn't know but he could guess. "A lot," she told him. Then she bit her lip and shook her head ruefully. "You'll never make it stick, though; you'll never prove it was them. CIA. Kelly's made of Teflon, and the agents who are loyal to him? They're really loyal to him. "
"Yeah," he said. "But you know how they say a dead man tells no tales? It's not true. When I'm dead, they'll believe me. They'll go through my pockets, find the gun, the claim ticket, the money--" and her eyes were widening; she'd gotten his drift. "I'll make Kelly meet with me, to pay me; I"ll get his face, his voice, recorded - I'll get it all, everything. You just do your bit of it."
He could see that she was thinking it through; trying to poke holes in his plan. "Alive, nobody'll believe a word I say," he told her. "Dead, I'll have credibility. It's what everybody will think anyway," he gritted out, "that I killed him. And I don't mind going down for it so long as--" His throat tightened suddenly. "--so long as he survives. So you need to protect him. Then and after; that's your part of it."
Her game face was slipping, a little. "Let me think," she muttered.
"Think over dinner," he said, getting up and absently offering her his hand. She shot him a look, and he made a face and nodded over at the dining room: "What? I made a reservation."
It wasn't his last meal exactly, but he didn't see why it shouldn't be a good one; he'd been living on horsemeat and cheap cigarettes for the last fifteen months, and before that - there was nothing before that. Still, the restaurant at the Grand Hotel stirred strange memories; deja vu for places he'd never been. The owners had resisted doing the place over in the '50s, the '70s, and the minimalist, mock-Japanese '90s, and so the restaurant had maintained its core of 1930s elegance, which appealed to him for reasons he didn't understand and preferred not to think about, even as everyone inside was wearing too-contemporary, too-hip fashion: printed silk shirts with pointed collars, designer dresses and stiletto heels. He drank heavily.
Across the table, Natasha was frowning down at the map he'd put on her phone: he had an idea, already, of where he should be, of where the gun should go. On the eighth floor, there was a corner with two large windows at right angles: one which would give him a view of the grandstand, the other which would give someone else a good side view of him; a clear shot. It was a mistake he would never make, to give someone an angle like that, but he didn't think they would question it. Not with him dead. Dead was its own proof of things.
"Jus' go to the tenth floor," he said, he said, slurring a little; vodka always went to his head. "I'll getcha the right sort of gun."
Natasha looked at him slantwise. "I've got the right sort of gun," she said, and then she leaned forward and said, low and throaty, "Do you want to come upstairs?" He raised his eyes to her; stopped fiddling with his glass. "What?" she said, deadpan. "I made a reservation," and of course she had. She was a Black Widow, and she knew her business, just as he knew his.
He felt an odd stirring inside him. "Did you ever do it with Steve?" he asked.
"No," she said, fast, before realizing that it was the wrong answer, that he would have kissed Steve off her body gladly, if it was what he could get. "We've kissed once...or twice," she said levelly, meeting his eyes, understanding now. "I've kissed him once or twice."
"Hm," he said, noncommittal, and reached for his glass. The thing inside him was moving, twisting - wouldn't stop - and it was all he could do to keep his face schooled and his body still. He downed the last of the vodka and gestured carelessly for another. He was viciously disappointed that Natasha hadn't slept with him: hell, why hadn't Steve slept with her? Prudishness. Arrogance. Choirboy: what was he saving himself for? It seemed hard, suddenly, that he would never see Steve again other than through his gunsights.
Then again, he wouldn't have to bear it for long.
He walked Natasha to her hotel room door. She clutched at his arm and pretended to sway a little on her towering heels, and he played along, smiling back, letting himself enjoy playing the game with a professional. He knew she could kick a man to death in those heels.
She leaned back, sultry and inviting, as he took the key and unlocked the door for her like a gentleman - and then he surprised her by gently pushing her up against the doorframe and kissing Steve from her mouth. She seemed taken aback by his sudden sincerity, and truth be told he felt a little ambushed himself: it had been a long time since he'd touched another person like this, sweetly, without pain. Memories of Steve he had expected, but he was flooded with other memories, too: of girls (Helen, Gloria, Irma), of his sisters throwing their arms around him, of his mother's perfume on the collar of her good Sunday coat. Then Natasha shifted against him, making fists in his shirt and hauling him close, and it was all Steve again: pushy, needy, grabby Steve. He held her head and pressed his mouth to hers with full deliberation: a message. Perhaps some day Natasha would grasp Steve's tie and drag his mouth to hers, and he'd know.
She sank back languidly against the door jamb when he pulled away. A pose, of course: she could strike at any time, though he could probably garotte her with the slim golden cord of her handbag before she got anywhere; he'd been trained at strangulation by the Americans at Fort McCoy. That seemed like an impossibly long time ago.
"Are you sure?" she asked, mouth curving, and he was unexpectedly tempted, almost stricken with it: a last night in a real bed with a warm body pressed up against his; her body. He hesitated, and she shifted minutely, showing herself off to him. She was lovely, truly: all curves and strength and smooth, golden skin. His eyes flicked back to hers and he thought, maybe, that she really wanted him - or maybe, having realized what was what, she wanted to try to fuck Steve out of him, or through him. That might be the only way she'd ever reach him.
He stepped back from that ledge, picked up her hand, kissed it. "I'm sure," he said.
"That's too bad," she said, and seemed to mean it, but a moment later she was all business. "Nizhny Novgorod," she said, straightening, suddenly sharp-eyed. "Two days, eighth floor," and he nodded and drifted away down the hall.
He arrived at the train station with only the clothes on his back. He found the parcel room and gave them the claim ticket; a moment later, a bored-looking man handed him a black duffle-bag. He took it without reaction as though it were his; later, when he looked inside, he found a gun, a phone, thick bundles of hundred dollar bills wrapped in paper straps, and an envelope of documents: birth certificates, passports. He flipped open the one from the United States, navy blue with gold lettering. His own face stared back at him - short hair, smiling; a photograph he'd never taken - and a new name, Sergei Zubov. They had never really known him at all.
He took the phone with him and walked out into Revolution Square and stood in the bright, cold sunlight, wind whipping his hair. He pressed the first number on speed-dial and said, in Russian, to whoever it was, "I got the payment; I want a meeting," and hung up without waiting for a reply. He lit a cigarette, then pulled a tiny device out of his breast pocket and pushed it into the phone's microphone hole. He was just putting the phone away again when it rang.
"Double, they said they'd give you," Constantin said, a little uncertainly, "but no meeting."
He ignored this. "Tell him Revolution Square, half an hour," he said and hung up. He'd found it was best not to talk too much. He bought a cup of coffee and a vatrushka from a bakery.
Deputy CIA Director Edward Kelly might have been a spymaster, but he was a terrible spy, or else he'd been out of the field too long, sitting behind a desk and giving kill orders to others. He hadn't been entirely sure Kelly would come, though he thought there was a good chance of it. The bigger the target, the fewer people to know, and Steve was about the biggest target there was, the little shit. Steve had always pissed people off, and people had always been out to get him; in that way, very little had changed except the scale of things. He smiled into his coffee.
He could tell that he scared the hell out of Kelly, who hadn't seen him coming. Kelly tried to stay cool, but he broke first, spoke first: "I never figured you'd be greedy, Soldat."
He didn't reply, just stared him down.
Kelly fidgeted for a moment, then broke the silence. "What do you want? More money, or...?"
He didn't answer.
Kelly tried to look more peeved than scared, failed, then looked at his wristwatch. "Well, look: this is your meeting," he said finally. "I can give you five minutes, then I've got to--"
Now he interrupted, saying gently: "We fought together in the war, Steve Rogers and me."
Kelly blinked at him in surprise. "Did you?"
"We were allies," he explained, and then added, with wry emphasis: "You know: Russia and the United States." He leaned in to put his mouth close to the CIA director's ear. "History's just a game of telephone," he whispered. "Everything's garbled by the time it gets to you."
Kelly's Adam's apple bobbed nervously, but he tried to assert himself. "Is everything all set for the mission?" he asked gruffly.
"Oh yes," he replied with blank-faced sincerity. "Everything's all set."
The eighth floor of the Politekhnicheskiy Institut was under construction; they had ripped out the old laboratory benches with their ancient bunsen burners and were knocking the walls back to brick: cables sat in huge drums ready to go up. He moved stealthily past a grimy wheelbarrow and dusty bags of concrete to the north-west corner of the room, where windows were set into the walls at right angles. He dropped his dufflebag and hoisted the sash of the north-facing window: below, they had already set up the grandstand, the barricades outlining the parade route, the metal bleachers. He could see where a line of chairs would be put out for the parade's officiants and their wives, for the few surviving Soviet veterans, and all the honored guests.
He turned to the other window, but this time looked up rather than down. The imposing white building across the road had once been a ministry office, but it seemed to have been converted into a block of flats. His eyes moved unerringly to the tenth floor, to the window that faced his, covered with a net curtain. He stared at it for a while but saw nary a flicker, shadow, or twitch.
Then he went to work: calculating the angles, carefully putting together the gun and taking it apart again, cleaning it, testing its sights. Then he opened the box of ammunition, 30 caliber military cartridges, and took out a bullet. It would never reach its destination - it would be the bullet he never fired - but still, he took out his knife and marked it: a love letter, unsent.
He spent his last night in a hotel far away from Pozharsky and Minin Square because all of the rooms downtown had been booked by tourists who'd come for the Victory festival. He lay back on the bed's terrible coverlet and rubbed his thumb over the boxy old TV remote. He didn't turn it on; instead, he tossed it aside and shuffled down flat on his back and stared up at the ceiling. An old movie flickered across the cracked plaster: about a skinny Irish kid named Steve who lived in a Vinegar Hill tenement with a cat, which fought off the mice in the kitchen. This kid had a friend, a bigger guy with dark hair; an actor he didn't recognize.
There was a scene where the dark haired guy came over, a bit sheepishly, and told his friend that he'd inadvertently found a smutty book in a cupboard in the basement of the store where they worked. "I shouldn't've looked at it," the guy confessed, "I should've left it where it was, but I did and now…" He laughed, red-faced and a little embarrassed. "I get the Pandora story now, I guess," he told Steve. "I'm all hot and bothered: I can't get it out of my head."
It was perfectly clear that, for all his protesting, the guy had come to show his friend the dirty book; he was expecting Steve to say, "Hey, let me see," and then they would pour over it and laugh and the bomb in his head, his gut, would be defused and it would be all right again.
But Steve didn't ask to see the dirty book; instead Steve looked hard at him and said, "C'mere," and tugged at his belt loops and turned off the lamp with its old dusty bell of a shade. And he had been shocked all right, because he was the one who - he was older, he was sophisticated, going places, everyone said so. Except Steve sometimes knew things that - well, that you could collect coal by the railroad tracks if you were willing to risk being hit, and that you could eat the prickly red berries off dogwood trees if you were careful, and that funeral parlors would give away things that you wouldn't believe, if you didn't mind that they'd belonged to dead people. Now Steve was unbuckling and unzipping him, reaching into his underwear with calm assurance, and - Christ, he had to close his eyes and suck for air, because he was there and here at the same time, and Steve's hand was on him, his mouth. Soft lips slid over him, and he was looking down, and all he could see was blond hair and the vulnerable nape of Steve's neck. How did he - how could he - where the hell had he got the nerve, the guts - where the hell had Steve learned to--and lying on the terrible coverlet he groaned and clumsily unfastened his pants, grasping himself with hands that overlaid Steve's in his memory. But it was the thought of Steve's mouth that brought him over; the earnest, ungraceful slide of Steve's lips on his cock.
He lay there for a while with his eyes squeezed shut and his heart hammering. Then the movie started up again. "You..." His voice shook, a little. "D'you do that to other guys?"
Steve squinted up at him, a little skeptical. "Why?" but now that he'd asked it, the answer was obvious.
"Because I don't want you to," he said, and he leaned down and kissed that scrawny, blond kid for the first time, for the first of what would doubtless be a thousand times, except the picture was over, the film flap-flapping against the reels.
It was a beautiful day for shooting: cold and clear and with no wind at all.
He got to the polytechnik early to set up his gun, and watched through the sights as men in overalls unloaded and set up rows of folding chairs from the back of a flatbed truck while other men unloaded boxes of fresh flowers. People began to claim seats on the bleachers: old people, couples, children, almost all of them clutching photographs of loved ones lost in the war: 27 million of them. Servicemen began to arrive, and armed military police, to stake out the square. A first plane zoomed overhead, shattering the peace - there would be more, he expected: MiG-29 fighters, and Su-27 jets. He tuned them out.
He had to maintain his own sniper's posture - have the gun properly trained at the grandstand, at Steve - but of course the real pose he had to maintain was his own: he had to give Natasha a plausible shot. He'd pulled up a battered and paint-splattered chair and positioned himself on it, planting his feet, arms braced, gun notched and pointed down at the square. He'd spent endless time - months, years, decades - like this, gun at the ready, breathing quietly, waiting to kill. The pose felt as comfortable to him as sleeping. It seemed an oddly fitting way to spend his last minutes; he would die as he had lived, seeing the world through a 50 millimeter lens.
And then the first limousine pulled up: black, sleek, disgorging three minor ministers into the waiting arms of plainclothes security in dark suits. The next car carried ambassadors from Kazakhstan and Belarus; after that, delegates from Romania, Estonia, and Hungary. Now here were the American, British, and French ambassadors. Generals Shaposhnikov and Grachev, followed by a nondescript old man: so harmless-looking now, but he had been the head of military intelligence, once. He had a vivid sense memory: a sudden, sharp smack to the face, a man's hand, back when the old man had been a young man. He allowed himself a daydream: he could kill him now. But no; he had to stick to the plan--and he supposed he shouldn't be surprised that Putin would arrive in the company of one Steven Grant Rogers, resplendent in red white and blue: the old uniform, the uniform he'd worn during the war. Because Steve was a celebrity and Putin was a showboat; he needed to be at the center of attention. The crowd let out a roar of approval as Steve stepped away from the limo and moved through a narrow path between armed agents toward the grandstand. The people had caught sight of him and it was like the Cold War had never even happened: they were cheering and smiling and shouting for his attention. Menya! Menya! Posmotri na menya! Look at me!
Steve raised his hand and waved, turning this way and that; he was smiling broadly, but through the scope you could see that his face was locked down, a mask. What the hell had possessed Steve to turn up at this goddamned ceremony, anyway? He pulled off the scope and rubbed at his eyes. Stupid kid probably still thought he was going to change this evil fucking swamp of a world all by himself. He broke posture for a moment to light a cigarette. Steve used to light his cigarettes for him, back in the day; Steve didn't smoke, but he would throw one into his mouth gracefully, strike a match, and take a quick puff to make the end flare up before handing it over. The unfiltered end would be slightly damp on his lip from Steve's mouth: a kiss. Kisses from before they started kissing, and that was Steve all over; cagey, saying nothing but looking at him from under those goddamned eyelashes as he sucked on the cigarette and the end flared red.
Now he breathed in deep, the smoke burning his lungs. He leaned back in to look through the scope, to look at Steven Grant Rogers working the crowd. The wet cigarette hung from his lips.
Every moment could be his last. Each second was a glass drop. The dignitaries settled. Steve's blond hair shone center stage. He wondered if he would feel it, the bullet. He hadn't felt his first death, but he remembered every death since. Everything was sharp, a riot of colors: the crowd, flowers everywhere, uniforms and hats and flags. Somewhere far away the screech of feedback and the echoing thrum of voices at a microphone, droning, speeches. Steve was sitting very still, his head turned and his face intent, listening. She would fire soon; when would she fire? He was lucky - blessed even - that it should end like this. That he would die with his eyes fixed on--
Steve jerked sideways and there was a spray of blood, white bone, screaming. The crowd erupted, exploded away like a wave, chairs falling over as people ran for it, a rippling bloom of chaos with Steve at its center - except he couldn't see Steve now, only suits, a tight knot of black suits like a tumor. There had been a shot. One shot - and in a kind of confusion he yanked down his own gun and unloaded it, fingering the long-nosed bullet, needing to prove to himself that he hadn't fired it in some kind of fugue state. But he hadn't. The love-letter bullet was in his palm. He clutched it tightly and stared: the cancer of black suits had nearly reached the archway of the brown stone building opposite, carrying something - a body - between them.
Perhaps three people in the world are capable of--and fuck! why hadn't it occurred to him that they would have hired multiple assassins, hedged their bets-- He lost the thread and slid onto his knees on the floor, screaming, metal flooding his mouth, sweaty and poisoned with it. He came back to flickering yellowish pinpricks of vision, rocking and bent over, gasping. All right.
He groped for his rifle and loaded it. It wouldn't be a satisfying kill from up here, so he went down to the street: he wanted to get in close. The square was a mess, sirens wailing and people cowering or running every which way, but he moved through them like long grass. He made a beeline for the brown stone building where they'd taken Steve's body, knowing that Edward Kelly would be there, pretending to be in charge, trying to ameliorate the effects of a significant international incident, and he was going to hurt him quite a lot and then kill him. Then he was going to find whoever it was who'd actually fired the bullet that had killed Steve and kill him, too.
Figures lurched and shrank away from him as he passed, and no Russian soldier or officer would dare to stand between the Winter Soldier and a target; he had that much left to him, anyway. He crossed the square and strode up the broad stone steps into the building's elaborate foyer, which featured a richly-colored floor-to-ceiling painting of the Gorky Automobile Plant at the height of its industrial glory. The foyer was empty, but a pair of elaborately carved double-doors had been flung open, and then there was another set of doors beyond these. Here he found Natasha Romanov, armed and in full battle gear, standing over an unconscious Edward Kelly, who had, gratifyingly, been manacled to a heating pipe. He was in his shirtsleeves, disheveled and bloodied, like he'd taken a good beating. But that wasn't enough.
"Give him to me," he said. Natasha shook her head, and he aimed the barrel of his rifle at her midsection and stood there, stock still, to let her think about it. It took effort to be still, because he was roiled up inside. A strange feeling, to be feeling: to be doing this with feeling.
"No." Natasha shifted slightly to stand in front of Kelly's body; to protect him. "I've got this. I've got all the evidence. He's not going to get away with it. He's done; I'm taking him down."
He was blind. Red. Blood in his head. "There was a plan. You had a job to do. You failed."
She was all quiet determination. "That was your plan," she said. "I made a different call."
The trigger was hard against his finger. "You made a--" The creak of a hinge, the scrape of a door opening, and he turned. There was Steve, pale and bloody, holding onto the doorframe.
His hair was thickly matted with blood on one side, bits of white bone clinging to it. Rivulets of red ran down his cheek: it was a realistic effect, expert. The blood had spread everywhere.
"You bastard," he said, and lowered the gun.
Steve's hands went up, surrendering. "I know," Steve said to him, appealing to him, "but it was the only way I could think of to--" He reached Steve in three long strides, dropping the gun to reach out for him and hug him hard, sucking for air through his gritted teeth. Steve clutched him back fiercely, blood squelching between them - he reeked of it, of death, but he was alive, the cagey bastard: somehow Steve Rogers was still alive. And then Steve's bloody hand was gripping his face, cupping it and turning his jaw to kiss him firmly, and this was Steve, all right - pushy, needy, grabby Steve - who he'd known his whole fucking life. And he'd kissed Steve's bloody mouth more than once - in Brooklyn alleys and on Italian battlefields - but at least this blood wasn't his. Steve's thumb drew bloody smears across his jaw.
"Bucky," Steve began.
His throat tightened and he shook his head. Because he wasn't. Not anymore.
Steve was having none of it. "Bucky," he repeated, the stubborn bastard. "There's no time to--"
Natasha coughed pointedly. "I was about to say," she said. "In a minute they're going to discover you gone from the slab, and the whole world probably saw the Winter Soldier storm in here; you weren't exactly in stealth mode. So you've got to decide what to-- "
"Whatever you want," Steve said, urgently, turning. "But I just got killed on live TV."
He said thickly, heart thumping, "I've got a bag full of passports and cash."
They stared at each other for a long moment.
"Get a boat," Natasha advised. "From here you can sail to Kazan, from there on to--"
"Anywhere," Steve said. "Anywhere, Buck--" and he suddenly had a vision of him and Steve on a boat, sailing down the Volga, a long slow trip. Down the river and through canals and across seas, to Spain, maybe, the islands, and then perhaps someday they'd discover America again, make their way across the ocean to the West Indies...
"All right. Yeah. Quick, let's go," Bucky Barnes said.