All rights go to Disney's Marvel and their respective partners.

Warning: Rated M for profanity, graphic violence, and sexual content.

[Winter Soldier/OC] [AU] [Angst/Romance/Drama]

Prologue

"Anna…Anna. Wake up."

Anna's eyes squinted from the beaming light above as she carefully lifted her head. The blurry film over her vision lifted, but the room still swayed. After a few moments, the grey walls came to a still, and she found a red-headed beauty sitting behind a white table, her arms folded across her ample chest.

"Natalia," Anna greeted, the hoarseness of her voice grating, even to her own ears.

"The effects of the truth serum will wear off in twelve hours," Natalia assured, her American accent smooth and impeccable.

Anna slumped back, her body heavy from the sedative they'd rudely injected into her arm, but her senses returned nonetheless. A pressure appeared around her wrists and ankles, and the scent of leather lingered in the air. She didn't bother testing the restraints. Natalia had spun her web, and Anna wasn't leaving any time soon.

But it didn't hurt to try. At least, not always.

Lolling her head from side to side, Anna glanced at their new environment. A few hours ago, she'd been cooped up in a stuffy interrogation cell at some SHIELD headquarter. Now, she sat in a room with decent ventilation and a thin grey sheet passing for wallpaper. Behind Natalia's lithe figure loomed a door with an intricate palm reader for a handle, and the wall to Anna's right beamed with bright surveillance screens that hovered above a busy control panel.

She quirked an eyebrow at the top-right monitor. "I did not know SHIELD had such good taste," she said, referring to the luxurious furniture in the dining room section of whichever safehouse they decided to stuff her in. Her eyes narrowed. "Is that a Persian rug?"

"We're at one of my personal safe houses," explained Natalia, her eyes never leaving Anna.

"Oh!" Anna's eyes flicked down to the metal chair beneath her, her restrained hands smoothing over the armrest as if they'd suddenly become the finest Italian leather. "I am flattered."

"You should be. I broke twenty-three SHIELD security protocols and eighteen international laws to move you here. If I still have a job by the end of this, I'll be lucky to be doing front desk."

"Ha! That, I would love to see."

Natalia shot her down with a hardened stare, making the smile on Anna's face fade into a fine line. All business, and no fun, it seemed. She might as well have stayed with SHIELD.

With a sigh and a roll of her eyes, Anna slumped back. "What do you want, Natalia?" After days of constant questions and threats, she'd grown weary. Not because they'd worn her down, but their lack of tact and skill made her want to tear her hair out. Honestly, how was SHIELD still in business? "Why am I here? Have I not told your agents all that I know of the Hand and Hydra? I am officially a dead woman. So if you do not mind, I would like to spend my last days in a country not in the western hemisphere."

"This is a secure location. You're safe."

Anna scoffed. "Since when did you become so naive?" She rested her head against the frame and let her eyes rove around the room once more, looking for any possible exits. She spotted a vent in her peripheral, located at the left-rear corner of the room. "And when did you begin working for SHIELD?"

Too narrow, she decided, even for her size three figure. Her eyes flicked back to the spy when she didn't receive an answer. A smirk crawled across Anna's face. "Or are you working both sides again, Natalia?"

No one ever really knew where the Black Widow's loyalties laid. One day, it was the Russians, the next, the Americans. And then sometimes, it was no one.

Anna felt a tinge of jealousy at the thought. She could play the game just as Natalia did—make a few friends on the other side, kiss a few asses—but it was too late for her. Baba Yaga would find her sooner or later.

"Can we begin?" Natalia asked. "Or are we going to be amateurs today?"

Anna cocked her head to the side and wondered what had Natalia's web so tangled. It wasn't like her to rush an interrogation. "Someone's in a hurry…"

Natalia provided no comment, verbally or physically. Clearly, whatever she wanted answering couldn't wait, and even Anna understood the repercussions of testing the great Black Widow's patience.

So she sighed and sat up straight in her chair. She stretched her neck and rolled her shoulders, limbering up for one of the worst pains she'd ever endure—or so they said. The truth serum in her veins would apply a strain on her body upon resistance. Some people claimed it felt like a cramp. Others claimed it was like infusing battery acid. With any luck, she'd simply faint from shock.

"What would you like to know? I am, as they say, an open book."

"I want to talk about the man in the black mask."

Anna flinched, her muscles tightening at the non-question. "I don't get a warm-up?"

"I thought you were an open book."

She glared at Natalia. So that was how it was going to be.

Clearing her throat, Anna accepted the challenge. She took in a deep breath and refocused. The truth could be manipulated, twisted, and turned into its own relative terms. As long as she held a clear, focused mind, she could deflect any question.

"There are many men in black masks," she said. "You're going to have to be more specific."

An eight-R-sized photograph landed on the table, and Anna held her gaze on the other woman. If she so much as glanced at a picture, she'd be done for. The bitch wasn't pulling any punches.

With a manicured fingernail, Natalia tapped on the photo. Tap-tap. "The man with the metal arm."

Anna's resolve slipped in the form of a single eye twitch. "There are many men with metal arms." Her thoughts skimmed through mental images of known associates with the description. She grimaced at the memory of a particular individual. "Even Wolverine has metal beneath that coat of fur he calls arm hair."

A smile cracked across Natalia's flawless visage. "That's good, Anna. The more you resist the serum, the harder it'll be to stop the truth from spilling out when it does."

Anna turned towards the monitors when Natalia's elegant hand reached for the photo. Is that a Don Felipe armoire?

With a turn of Natalia's wrist, the photo was placed face-down. She reached beneath the table and then produced a brown folder. It landed on the table with a flop. Anna's eyebrows furrowed at the sound. It'd been a light drop, but still...how had these klouny managed to build an entire folder on him?

Her curiosity grew.

And then she remembered her mistake. Oh, blyad! There are many men with metal arms, she reminded herself. Wolverine. Colossus. Cable. Doctor Doom. She recited the names of heroes and villains alike to wash out the thought of anyone in particular.

"Who is he?" Natalia demanded, cutting through her thoughts, the sternness in her voice leaving no room for arguments.

At that, Anna breathed easy. She turned her head to face forward, her shoulders relaxing as a smirk pulled at the corner of her mouth. She had an answer—a simple and easy one. "I do not know."

Natalia's face remained unperturbed—stoic and beautiful, like a portrait. However, Anna could sense the vexation rolling off her like steam. "And yet he protected you."

She shrugged. "Secret admirer, I suppose. I have quite the Twitter following."

Turning her hand over, Anna examined her maroon-polished fingertips with casual interest and frowned when she noticed a chipped nail.

"He killed thirteen SHIELD operatives in less than five minutes," Natalia pointed out as if Anna would care. "He nearly killed me."

Metal screeched across the tile floor as Natalia stood from her chair and lifted her black Cordura jacket. A hand-sized gauze covered the area below her left floating rib. A non-lethal shot, of course. Natalia hadn't been the mission.

If he wanted to kill you, he would have, she wanted to say. The serum made certain of clawing at her skin as she resisted the urge.

"No one has ever gotten that close." Natalia pulled the fabric back down with a harsh tug.

Anna smirked. "Bye, bye, bikinis."

Natalia shot her a pointed look. "Somehow," she continued in a clipped tone, "our Intel never picked up on him. And no recognition software on the planet can identify this photo. He's a complete ghost. The best I've ever seen."

Anna wondered about the contents of the photograph. Did the mediocre and prosaic intelligence officers of SHIELD actually capture his essence? Unlikely. The red-head had to be bluffing.

"You, of all people, should know we are all ghosts."

"Not like this."

"I do not know who he is," Anna repeated, annoyed. The only thing more pestering than being interrogated was being interrogated for information she didn't possess. At least during the former, she'd have some fun evading their efforts. "That is the truth. Next question."

Natalia sighed. "Plausible deniability. I do miss the basics." She sat back down, pulling the chair under her, and then opened the folder. Anna averted her gaze, humming the theme song of I Love Lucy in her head while Natalia read through the datasheets. "What I don't understand is why the house was already broken into when we arrived. Security was bypassed remotely, and the east window was dismantled."

She turned another page. "Unless…" Her hand paused, and then her green eyes lifted from the folder. "Unless he was there to kill you."

Anna's wrists jolted within their restraints, her hands curled into fists and nails dug into her palms. She squeezed her eyes shut, bearing the excruciating coil of her muscles.

"Why would he protect his target?" continued Natalia, as every inch of Anna's body, from those in her feet to the ones in her neck, tightened into horrible knots until she swore she would snap in half. Her abdomen clenched so hard she wouldn't need another core workout for the next century. "Why would he go through all that trouble of getting through your death trap of a house only to stop at the last minute?"

A strained scream escaped between Anna's clenched teeth as the back of her head slammed against the chair frame. Battery acid, she decided—fast-acting battery acid. Her eyes flung open. The fluorescent light above burned her retinas, and drops of saline fell down her cheeks.

Heavy silence and her whimpers filled the cold room.

"I take no pleasure in this, Anna," Natalia said after a few moments, "but we both know there's a reason you refused to disclose this information to SHIELD."

Anna let out a pained laugh. If only she knew the kind of vermin that infested her beloved SHIELD. With tears stinging her cheeks and teeth clenched, she endured the pain for as long as possible.

And then some more.

A long time passed before Natalia spoke again. "Your nose is bleeding, which means you're going to have a brain aneurysm in the next three minutes. And then, a minute later, it will burst. I can only hope to get you to the nearest hospital before it kills you."

Anna lowered her head with a quivering body and locked eyes with the placid women—her thick, auburn fringe bringing out the deep, evergreen color of her eyes. SHIELD couldn't be trusted as long as Hydra controlled the inner workings of the organization. But she did trust Natalia, as much as she hated to admit it. After all, the spy defected from the mother country for an archer.

"This information does not leave this room," she strained to say. "Swear to me. Swear to me, or I will return from the dead again, and this time…I will kill you."

Natalia stared at her for a long time, contemplating the deal. Then responded with a reverent nod. "You have my word, sestra."

Anna's body thrust forward as she gave in to the serum. Sweet relief washed over her taut muscles and skin like a cold shower on a hot summer day.

"He didn't kill me"—her labored breaths blew at the strands of chestnut brown hair hanging over her face—"because he is confused."

"Confused about what?"

She lifted herself and leaned back against the chair, releasing a tired sigh. She looked at Natalia, trying to deduce whether it was the right or left hand that the palm reader recognized.

"About everything," she replied. "I think he is fighting it."

"Fighting what?"

"Whatever poison Hydra put in his head!" Anna's brain went for a spin, and a few seconds later, she found herself over the armrest, ready to dispel the contents of her stomach—though, she had none. S.H.I. hadn't been very good hosts. She wondered if the tile flooring beneath her feet could truly hold the nails bolting her chair down.

The thought drifted away as she remembered the warm look on his face when she touched his cheek. "I think…I think he recognized me."

He could have buried his twelve-inch K-Bar into her chest at that moment, right before SHIELD barged into her living room with tranquilizers and restraints. But he didn't.

"You care about him." Anna hadn't noticed she'd been smiling. She turned her head to find Natalia staring at her with a look of candid disbelief, her eyebrows raised and lips parted. The palms of her gloved hands pressed onto the table as she leaned forward, her eyes examining Anna as if she'd morphed into a completely different person before her eyes. "I knew something was different about you."

"You know nothing, Black Widow."

Natalia's eyes narrowed. "Who is he to you?"

Anna's jaw clenched as the strain returned to her neck and shoulders, pouring down on her like scalding water. She waved her hand at the photograph. "Turn it over."

A moment later, her eyes landed on a blurred silhouette perched on the edge of a scaffold. To the untrained eye, it resembled a dark smudge or cast shadow—both easily dismissible—meaning whoever captured the photograph must have done so by accident—perhaps a tourist snapping random pictures or a foreman taking record. Otherwise, if he'd classified them as anything other than a civilian…they would have never returned home that day.

SHIELD had him, nonetheless. The silver-tone of his arm was as clear as day. She smiled and shook her head. She warned him about the shine, but he never listened. Her wrist tugged against the leather restraint as she reached for the photograph.

So close…yet so far...

An ache grew deep within her chest the longer she stared at it. Anna could sense Natalia watching her, studying her, but she didn't care. What did she know? A Black Widow only ever cared for herself and her mission. Isn't that how the Red Room trained them? To be objective, calculative, and cold? Wasn't that how she was supposed to be?

Maybe…if Anna had been more like her training, she wouldn't have failed him.

She swallowed hard as she tried to rid the knot forming in her throat, but it was no use. Tears fell down her cheeks for the second time that day. Long ago, she would've found the reaction appalling and then retreated into the Himalayas' relentless and solace mountains, but Natalia was right. She had changed. She'd cried more within the last few decades than her entire life—all tears for the same reason.

"He's nothing to me," she said in a low voice, the ache in her chest clenching around her heart, "and everything."

"What's his name?"

"I do not know his true name," Anna replied, taking in the photograph one last time before turning away, "however, Hydra calls him their Winter Soldier."

"Hydra was eliminated in the forties."

The corner of Anna's mouth quirked upward. "Were they?"

Natalia's stern gaze dropped to the table as she pondered the question. After a long moment, it lifted. "Tell me more."

Anna hesitated. Hydra had eyes and ears in every crack and corner of the world, and as good as Natalia was, she still couldn't avoid the consequences of knowing too much. Even spies had pay-grades.

"SHIELD agents are being compromised and assassinated across the globe," Natalia persisted. "By someone that doesn't leave witnesses or traces." Photographs, datasheets, and incident reports shrouded the tabletop as Natalia tossed them out like candy. "Intel tells us that it's not AIM or HAMMER."

Anna skimmed over his work with an unfazed demeanor—although, she had to admit he was working rather quickly.

"But someone's dog is off their leash."

The thought of gnawing off her restraints and leaping over the table to snap Natalia's pretty little neck flashed across her mind. Instead, she shot her a contemptuous glare. "Do not call him that ever again."

"He's slipping through our fingers," Natalia continued, unperturbed. "And I know nothing about him, Anna. No one does. I need your help."

"Why would I help you? What do I care about all this?" She gestured to the plethora of useless documents with a dismissive wave. "What do I care about SHIELD?"

Natalia stared at her for a long moment, her green eyes piercing. "He's not after SHIELD," she said, "but you already know that…don't you?"

Anna shifted in her seat as the serum goaded for an answer. She didn't bother fighting. "Let him come," she huffed. "I am dead already."

What did she care if he found her? Eventually, someone would because no one could run forever, and believing otherwise was foolish.

And yet, Anna, you're the greatest fool of them all, a voice whispered from the back of her mind. He will find you and tear you to pieces.

She wondered where he was now and if he thought of her as much as she did of him. She scoffed inwardly. Of course, he did. He thought of her every moment he scoured the planet for her head.

"Anna…I know you have no reason to believe me when I say this, but your safety is all I care about. I will protect you."

Anna sat silently as her mind grasped at fleeting memories of their time together in the Red Room. Images of dark corridors and cold rooms appeared along with the scent of cedarwood. Fluffy, pink skirts swirled and twirled, and then a loud snap! The sound of a cane hitting bone echoed from the back of her thoughts.

She licked her dry lips. "I have told you once before, Black Widow. The person you knew is gone. Anna Ivanovna died in Japan all those years ago."

Natalia shook her head. "I refuse to believe that, especially now that there's a chance you've regained part of your soul," she lifted the photo and examined it for a moment, "because of this Winter Soldier."

She rolled her eyes. Natalia was the fool, and it'd be the death of both of them. She dropped her gaze to the sheets scattered across the table. He was hunting—that much was clear. The precision and efficiency was his trademark, but the lack of conspicuity was not. The destruction, the bodies—the carnage he left behind was too rushed, too emotional, as though he were desperate to find her.

A smile stretched across her face. Hydra's grip on their most valuable asset was slipping again.

After a few minutes, Natalia slipped the photograph into the folder before setting it aside. Her face became stone again as she continued the interrogation. "Tell me about him. Tell me everything."

There was no point in prolonging the inevitable now. "Very well," Anna began. She faced forward to meet Natalia's determined gaze. "The Hand and Hydra had a very short-lived alliance in the late fifties. Together, they developed a program. The Osiris program."

Natalia nodded. "Murdering mutants to build a zombie army."

Anna quirked an eyebrow. She thought Hydra would've buried that information in the deepest bowels of hell.

"Fury asked me to look over some classified archives when I first joined SHIELD," Natalia explained. "I didn't understand why at the time...but I do now."

Fury and his little secrets ran deep, it seemed.

"I objected to the alliance, of course," she continued. "Hydra could never be trusted, but my Master thought otherwise. Therefore, the Hand sent their best asashin, and Hydra sent their best soldat to collect them."

"Black Sky and Winter Soldier."

Anna smirked. "We made quite the team."

"If that's true, then why is he hunting you?"

"I betrayed them."

"Why?"

Anna paused. "It…it is a long story."

"We have time," Natalia assured and then gestured to the door. "Coffee?"

A smile stretched across Anna's face. No, they didn't have time. Not when it came to the Winter Soldier.

"Only if it is Russian," she replied.

And Natalia Romanova, the Black Widow, smiled back.