1965-03-10 - Project Ursa: Phecda
Summary: Lives hang in the balance as SHIELD's super-soldiers race towards Volgograd. They've encountered just a few setbacks along the way: enemies in hot pursuit, loss of supplies, and a few bullets with Captain America's name on them. They just have to navigate their way through a few villages before they're home free. A cinch, right? If only the very Rodina — the black earth of Russia itself — weren't rising against the invaders. They say the land never forgets. They're right.
Related: Project Ursa
Theme Song: None
rogue steve-rogers bucky black-widow omega-red 

0927 hours. A-153 south of Prudboy. Volgograd Oblast.

Empty fields and telephone poles mark out a highway that barely deserves the designation. Snowdrifts and brackish water form a stew on the canal-side of the route. Snow so covers the two-lane road as to make it indistinguishable but for a weak dip, the odd hint of snowmobile tracks or a passing truck. The Russian vastness sweeps out without relief, grey-metal skies descending on loose-branched trees. The occasional eruption blasts out behind them, the screaming streak of a salvo in their wake. Somewhere a freighter sinks in the waters, sure to be an irritation to the oblast government, cause in a few days' time for heavy machinery to come pull out the wreckage. For now, though, two men fight for survival.

Natasha mentioned a safehouse in Prudboy. But on the other side of the river, the respectable village is probably unreachable. Never mind all that heavy equipment came from Prudboy. The river and their paralleling canal takes a sharp bend south in some kilometers up ahead, a string of other hamlets strung out along the way. Trudging fifteen kilometers in snowy conditions isn't going to be fun or easy, but if they push it, they might make the next safehouse in Bereslavka in three hours.

They're going to have to push it. Time to test Zola's initial efforts to their utmost - this kind of horrible slog is what he was built and trained for. "I'm kind of tempted," he tells Steve, "To have you use the words on me. Winter eats this kind of stuff up, the crazy bastard. Maybe we could commandeer another bike." You don't use the word 'steal' in front of Saint Stephen if you can help it

"I'm not going to use the words on you, Buck." Saint Steven's tone is implacable. Keeping pace beside the soggy Soldier, Steve's arms move mechanically in time with his legs. Just keep running, just keep running, running-running-running-running. At least they aren't swimming anymore. "I'm reminded of bootcamp," he adds, glancing over at his friend. "You must remember running laps at bootcamp? You were there before me." Distraction. It's all about mild distraction while their ground-eating loping combats the snowdrifts and hidden ruts. If Buck's brought up the words, something else is eating him alive.

"If we find another bike, it's definitely a possibility." He puffs, breath going white in the air before him. What, sliding moral scale? Simply for survival.

The freezing weather turns their clothes to frosty slag, where not slushed along hems and boots. Despite all things, the filthy fishpaste song hasn't been relieved by the swim in the canal, proving some wretched contamination can endure a proper dunking. Bereslavka is a long haul away with very few houses in the way, only the canal and the distant hum of snowmobiles and trucks in the distance. Overhead, high beyond the clouds, props and engines churn up the grim cumulus ceiling, indicative of some kind of airplane. Friendly? Transport? Waiting to strafe them? It's nigh to impossible to be sure.

No snow falls though the wind moans and throws faint streams of white crystal off the drifts and acquired dunes. Energy spent trudging or loping hasn't any obvious way of being replenished anywhere nearby. As far as they can see, no signs of civilisation: no houses, no barns, not even lean-tos. Road signs splattered in snow alone give much semblance of where they go.

"I ran a lot of laps at bootcamp, yeah," Buck agrees, lips tight. "And you may want to later. If you use 'em on me, they can't use 'em on me," …..why did he keep them? Xavier could've erased them. "What this reminds me of," he adds, drily, "Is some of my initial training as Winter. They ran me ragged to see what I could take. To see if Zola's experiments had taken. Do you know how delighted he was to get at me again, after you'd rescued me in Italy?"

"I can only imagine…" Barely audible over the cry of the gusting wind, Steve has only that to say for a minute or two of relentless jogging. At least the blood moving through their bodies is keeping the chill manageable. His countenance shows that he won't countenance another instance like that again. Avenging Saint Steven, that's for sure, especially if his friend's safety comes into question. Well…moreso than usual. Theirs is a twisted take on 'dangerous'.

"I'll only use the words if I have to, Buck. Otherwise, no-go." His lips are equally tight in turn. "I'm not about to willingly subject you to that again."

|ROLL| Rogue +rolls 1d20 for: 17

One kilometer melts away into another. The road bends in response to the river and there, a glimpse through the trees, the water holds a brackish darkness under its serene push of ice floes. Greenery is perilously limited, a few scrubby evergreens holding out in clumps here and there. The west bank of the canal holds Bereslavka, the promise of warm food and fresh clothes, presumably firearms.

Bucky might be the first to really recognize the slow build-up of traffic on the north bank and another hissing noise in the distance, the distinct chuk-chuk-chuk of rotors. Whatever's up there can execute an easy enough flyby, far faster than even the snowmobiles fanned out.

Seconds and counting.

Bucky says something extremely rude in Russian. "Steve, we need to find cover now. That's a helicopter coming, I can hear it. They'll see us from the air." Like Alaskan wolves being shot from a plane.

Wonderful. To counter, Steve says something equally rude in Gaelic, a language barely anyone knows around here and immediately begins scanning the land around them. The shrubs aren't going to do it, stunted as they are; no one's wearing a white suit to help blend into the wasteland's current coverage in snow.

"Into the trees," and he points at the nearest clumping, turning on a dime to sprint towards it. The dive into their shadowy grouping? Not very graceful, but hey, it's safety. Ish.

Twisted and gnarled trees give a modicum of cover, their lower branches heavily pruned by enterprising serfs. Scars on the gnarled bark indicate the rough hacking, scars barely healed over the years. They fall into a copse barely suitable enough for the description; grove is overambitious. Snow here is thinner, not by much, mixed up with needles and debris.

The Kamov bears the greenish-grey body of military tech, the Soviet lines painted on its tail. Rotors pound a vibrating pulse against the ground, throwing up snowdevils in spirals. They can only hope against being spotted by the figures watching from the open door.

Or the spotters with binoculars across the canal.

Just in time….because Bucky doesn't just hurl himself into the shelter of the trees. He more or less collapses like one of the presumable snipers landed a hit on him. He doesn't scream, but he makes a terrible, strangled noise that's worse, somehow, like an animal in a snare. A moment's brief thrashing on the relative softness of years' worth of needles becoming mould, and he's still, panting. Was that a seizure?

The thudding rotation of the helicopter's rotors doesn't drown out that anguished sound, not when it's this close to his person.

"Bucky? Buck!" Steve reaches out and puts a hand on his friend's shoulder to give it a little shake. "What happened?!" He looks back out through their miserable hide and ducks his head lower, hoping against hope that the shield doesn't glint through the pine tree's coverage.

The helicopter spirals around on a twisting loop, fading off into the distance. No sooner than its vibrating harmonics vanish than return, pulled back as inevitably as the moon slung to the furthest reach of its orbit. Another strafing line shakes up the branches, giving them imperfect protection from on high, assuredly. Does the blue and red stand out among the white snow and the greyed water, the green boughs thrashing them for their insolence?

The Kamov zips on. It may well be open to them to run. Or not.

He doesn't get up, not yet. Not with that hum vibrating at the back of his mind. "I….I am or was linked to the kids, Scarlett. I felt like I got a jolt of electroshock. I can still feel it. Someone's hurting them." He's gone a weird grayish color, even as he tries to tuck himself further under the pine boughs.

Steve squints as the helicopter completes another pass-by. The shards of ice flakes sting a little as they jump from the pine needles, but then…a semblance of silence follows, at least once the Kamov continues past.

"You gotta shake it, Buck. We can't save them if you're not up and ready for it," he murmurs to his friend, his expression strained. "Tell me how the Army's going to look for us. The helicopter's new." It's an uncomfortable turn of events, that's for certain. "Is this a normal search pattern? What do you remember?"

The harmonic scream echoes in the back of the skull, a thrumming of ongoing pain that never ceases, only alternates with the throbbing current. On and on, that splintering high plays like pains in the phantom limb long ago lost to the ice, separated from Bucky's body.

Nonesuch obvious return yet, though the beams of the snowmobiles along the far bank might be heard at a remove, not seen yet. Choices. Run, or hide. The safehouse is more than an hour away, and their time to run, now.

He gets up, wobbly as a foal, and says, "You're right. We're gonna have to make a break for it. Those things come in low. The shield may bring 'em down, if they're dumb enough to get in that close - aim for the rotors. It's definitely hunting us. You may have to carry me. Or….you can go on and leave me here."

"I'm not leaving you behind." Not again, Steve thinks as they both scramble to their feet. He keeps a firm grip on Bucky's under-bicep, at least until their shambling pace becomes more steady. "If they come down on us, they'll regret it."

Being hunted by Nazis was nothing like this. The Black Forest had a nearly-insurmountable covering of greenery within to hide. The tundras of this place offer bleak hope.

The Black Forest had trees. The Ardennes had trees. The Russian steppe lacks for them in a clear way, same as the broad prairie of Kansas raised a bumper crop of pilots and astronauts for NASA and the USAAF. Few places to hide as they cross stubbled crops and shrubs along the frozen irrigation canals used to water the rich soil: they're on the run, given terribly little protection, the wind at their backs and the grey sky ahead.

Numb flashes afflict the one man, the other left scouring sky for the signs of the helicopter. Now and then vehicles cross in the distance, tearing down the road, propelled by snowmobile more than anything. Their best bet is the safehouse, a house in the cluster of low-slung farm buildings, less clapboard and more cinderblock, somewhere warm and anonymous. No vehicles on their path thus far. On their own recognizance, it's a drowning path of stumbling and forging through drifts waist-high in places. Bleak hope there can only be found by moving, by not faceplanting.

This has that edge of nightmare again. Buck's far from his usual deadly grace, stumbling on at a zombie's weak-kneed tread. But he's moving and not falling, trying for whawt cover they can find, be it irrigation canals or fencelines.

Bereslavka. Volgograd Oblast.

An hour of running through fields, an hour of trudging and collapsing behind ruined walls when another pass of the Kamov sends them wisely to cover until the distant shape passes into a cloudbank. Phantoms hunt them above and the miltiary vehicles swing down the highway, well beyond their sight. It's a matter of careful balance trying to keep direction steady so they aren't led to the border with Iran. Explaining to Peggy why they ended up in Tehran after a massive manhunt could be rather difficult.

Power poles give them direction to follow. On the horizon, small buildings slowly, oh so slowly, resolve into low-slung roofs and humble wooden shacks behind rickety fences. A single white sign on the road reads 'Bereslavka' in Cyrillic. Ugly little roads piled in snow, not plowed, punch away from the canal into the 'town', which contains very little of interest other than a gas station and basic amenities. They're going to be crawling through gardens looking for a house iwth a brown roof and a brown door, and the keys hidden under a rain barrel.

The canals are probably filled with knee-high half-sludge of ice and snow, something to be avoided it they can. Still — hiding tracks is a clever thing, and Steve follows Bucky's lead in this, being the lesser of the two in regards to spy-dom. They weave in and out of gullies, powering up the hills and loping across the flats as best they can.

The approach to town is something slower yet, more cautious, since other eyes are like as not unfriendly. Steve angles their approach along a fenceline piled with a snow drift, heading for the nearest backyard.

"It was a brown door, right? The keys were under a barrel." This is a confirmation and yank back to present, if his hollow-eyed friend needs it.

"Yes," he says. He's beyond shivering. He seems to exist in some half-aware state- so much of his body's resources devoted to keeping him moving and not freezing and not fainting. "That's it." Even when he's standing still, it's not right. The way his head hangs - it's like a bull in that last terrible act of the bullfight, bled and exhausted and just waiting the matador's sword.

Trench-foot is a very real threat for trudging in wet boots, no? The village, despite it being rather healthy morning — probably eleven, all said and down — remains oddly quiet. Those backyards don't have any welcoming laundry, though some feature woodpiles and squares of cut peat under tarps and sheds. All has the feel of incredibly humble origins, a farm community likely to have little more than a phone and a lifeline out to Volgograd between them. A few half-hearted efforts to brighten the place up with a red flag here, a small mural of workers there, stick out for the stillness.

An hour of pure pain and nothing but the hollowing out has to be too familiar, suffering by proxy. Predictable routines of blitzing the senses and fading back into shaking tremors awaits Bucky. Steve has to simply deal with finding the damn house. There are a good many brown ones, and it takes him twenty minutes of shuffling around to have any success. In that time, not a soul comes out to peer at them.

Finally — there's the damn rain barrel. It feels like stealing, but it's not…not really, not when the safehouse is meant for safety and respite from the elements.

"Hold on, Buck," Steve whispers, having to momentarily trust his friend's own sense of balance to work the key into the icy lock itself. A careful crank, ka-chunk of shifting tumblers, and in they go, out of the cold. The Captain helps Bucky into the space beyond and quickly shuts off the door.

"Let me get some heat going and I'll make food — something," he mutters, hating to leave his friend alone for even a minute. It's been a long time since he's seen that emptiness and it hurts to see it in turn.

He's looking for somewhere to curl up, reduced to animal tropisms: warmth, shelter, dryness, darkness. "Right," he says, as if speaking were an effort. All he can do is echo what's coming down that link.

A door opens to the lock. Within, barricaded materials of a toppled coatrack prevents easy entry. Steve can kick that out of the way with a little bit of jostling. Cinderblock construction gives out little hint of actual amenities, but there are windows and even the ultimate luxury, a roof. Walls are worse for wear, more than a few of the cupboards torn down and hanging from nails. Maybe that was a chair, smashed to pieces. Possibly an icebox, spilled onto the floor.

|ROLL| Steve Rogers +rolls 1d20 for: 11

Bucky is carefully herded off to one side of the wall where it isn't dented or out-and-out destroyed and left there, only for the short while it takes Steve to hunt through the debris. The icebox? Nothing. The interior of a slant-hung cupboard missing one door?

Something, but…nothing palatable or even worth attempting to force down. The bread is sporting some disturbing colors from water seepage. The oats have a fine layer of green on them, proof that they come from a hardy local strain. The tinned fish? Steve thins his lips and pushes that away entirely. No way. Not after the sturgeon fiasco. At least he's gone mostly nose-blind to it by now. He puts a hand over his eyes and the other at the belt of his suit, where the small packs hold nothing…

Wait. Looking down, he huffs and then walks quickly back over to Bucky. "Buck. Bucky." In his hand…one hell of a crushed, scuffed, and half-wetted bun from their failed bakery delivery, squirreled away because Steve thought he might need a snack later on.

Just in time to see the assassin spasm once, that horrible disjointed motion like someone being electrocuted, and then go limp. "It's gone," he says, and he sounds…oddly bereft. "I can't feel them anymore. They're hurting them. They were." It's a good thing he has the coat, still. Wool will keep you warm, even wet. It takes him a moment to see what Steve is offering, and he tears off some and eats it, before offering it back, chewing mechanically.

The ransacked safehouse stands empty, but standing all the same. The emptied bedroom is much the same, a twisted metal frame and shredded, stained mattress slopped off onto the floor. A bucket stands in the bathroom, something more like an indoor outhouse with a proper door. Not even curtains to speak of, those possibly a luxury. Then again, there are other homes scattered left and right, probably a hundred of them to pick from.

With Bucky barely cognizant enough to put food in his own mouth, Steve isn't about to go leaving him alone — not after that rictus of despair that flashed through the man's body.

"What's gone? The connection?" He kneels down beside his friend, resting a forearm across one padded knee. "We'll find them," he stresses, attempting to keep the frail flame of hope alive.

"Yeah. I didn't realize for a long, long time that we're all linked," he says, voice low, rough. "Telepathy, or something like it." Enough to make him wonder if he really is the original. "At least one of 'em was alive until a moment ago." Wolves howling to packmates over the horizon. "I need to rest," he adds, dully.

Windowpanes typically don't crack by themselves. They do not typically shatter into a hundred radiating lines from a centrifugal circle. Puffs of plaster never much wisp out of a wall, either.

A glimpse in the shadows around a corner, flight at a sprint. A soldier's reflexes never totally dull, not even in death, adrenaline flagging and kicked back up in an instant when the gunshot traverses the room. The second shatters a pane far closer, the bullet planting itself in the ceiling over Steve's head.

Steve doesn't look any more comfortable with the idea of his friend going to sleep, but hey, it's a devilish necessity for any human psyche in the end.

"Let me see if I can go find a pillow or — " Then comes the first shot. A flinch, reflexive drop to the floor, and then the next follows, far more closer still. "I think they found us," he says in a tone long-suffering, even as he's pushing himself back up to hands and knees, gathering himself for the next avoidance maneuver. Hopefully adrenaline's enough to startle his friend out of a nap.

"Shit," Bucky says, and even he sounds resigned, rather than surprised. Adding, on the next breath, "Sorry, Steve." Adrenaline there is - he can run himself until he literally runs himself into the ground, if needs must. And needs most definitely must, right now. Rolling up into a crouch. "Or else the people here decided we were a problem."

|ROLL| Rogue +rolls 1d20 for: 4

No sign of the perpetrators immediately outside after that first glimpse meets their gaze, though it's hard to be sure looking through three windows with a crouch. Absence of blinds works in the unseen shooter's favour, or favours, depending on how many there are. A mere glimpse hasn't provided sighting better than one.

Another shot deflects off brick and cracks through the first window again, leaving another mark on the wall. Shards of glass tumble to the ground. Whomever they are outside, they have plenty of possible cover. The houses are low, but there are more than a few laid out in plots like any American farm town on a grid.

"It's not your fault," Steve's quick to say even as he's pulling his hand back down from covering his neck. "This is cover, but they'll starve us out here. I'm not dying in a rathole in Russia." His eyes meet and hold Bucky's own darker gaze, haunted as it is. "I've got the shield. I'm going out the front door to draw fire, you shoot back."

He reaches for his belt again and hands off the gun he took from the Russian freighter worker. "Here, you're a dead shot. Get 'em before they get me?" What a fearless grin. Remember that no hero was born brave; fear is a very real thing, even for Captain America. Still — he makes his way to his feet, pulls up the hood, and readies the star-spangled shield in front of himself. And then?

That peasant-grade door explodes out of its frame in a burst of wooden shards and out comes Steve, at the ready, immediately crouching after a side-step to place his back to the outside wall. The shield is his only true defense other than Bucky himself. Kool-Aid Man would be proud of that exit.

It's like the old days. Not in a good way. This is *exactly* the kind of maneuver that used to make Peggy pinch the bridge of her nose and ask where the headache powders were. Very much a STEVE NO moment.

And it's the old memories and the old instincts that have Buck trying to sneak out another exit, in a way that he can possibly get an angle on the shooter. Or else Steve is going to get gunned down like Dillinger.

|ROLL| Rogue +rolls 1d20 for: 17

Alas, a very large door makes for a particularly useful barrier from the dangers out there, the ones with guns and snowmobiles and choppers. Splinters impede sightlines, worse than a mist that blocks whatever he would see. Steve has to negotiate that snow-filled lane, too narrow for even a cart to trundle down. Only the two-lane road threading its way to the mouth of the canal has any size. Advantageous in some ways, troubling in others. He makes it maybe five strides before being forced with a reckoning: follow the lane to the fields past a string of houses, or cut up to the road and trek to the next lane, or break between the close-together cinder hovels in search of his quarry.

No one else is waiting out there, no figure slipping into Bucky's point of view or Steve's at the outset. Only the cold wind and the grey sky, snow and the distant hum of engines that gathers speed and strength over time. The river gurgles in its fluid rush through the canal.

Coming to Bereslavka was a good call on account of Steve and Bucky, as that is where Natasha made her way after getting seperated at the Volga-Don Canal. Her approach has been on the stealthy side, while pulling KGB card to get out of trouble along the way and even use military / police assets to keep going. Naturally, they would be foolish to ask her for purpose, that's how people get to see the basement levels underneath the Kremlin and nobody wants that. Suffice to say, she used input from military and law enforcement personnel along the way to advance on Steve and Bucky. This was, after all, a hunt of Mother Russia after invaders.

When she finally makes it to Bereslavka, closing in on Steve and Bucky, she eventually can spot the house where all roads lead to. Or at least all armed personnel lead to, because sneaking from behind on a threat, to find an 8 year old girl with happen is a dead giveaway.

Something like that might give pause to most people, Natasha on the other hand, has been that little girl. To varying degrees, she has no way of telling the precise level of training that girl has at this point, but she knows better than most. If she doesn't treat that girl like a killer, she will be the one doing the dying, and that's not why Nat made it this far. Silencer set on her pistol, she tries for a head shot. Unimpressed by age, she will remove the threat. One girl means there could be other, and any who were brought up at the Red Room knows that when it comes to the USSR, some of these girls are deadlier than special forces.

No sight of Natasha and no sight of their shooter. Steve ducks into the shadow of the main line of huts, keeping the shield close and raised in case of further gunfire. His heart is loud in his ears and he quickly scans his surroundings. The narrow distance between the houses means cover, in theory, for both lure and predator. He can only guess who's manning the gun that broke multiple panes of glass.

He breaks cover again, dodging between the hovels, a quick blur of mildly-reflective blue and glint of silvery shield. Oooh, shiny!

And Buck is circling around, also in search of that shooter. He is, bluntly speaking, a wreck. Hollow-eyed, still sodden from multiple dips in the river, in that ragged greatcoat he's stolen. Still stealthy, but ….he looks like a drowned zombie rat version of the usual Bucky.

|ROLL| Rogue +rolls 1d20 for: 15

She's barely past four feet tall, slim and waifish, blonde hair bound up under a heavy knit cap. Heavy brown clothes and wool coat do not allow much of a glimpse for her build. A flap of a scarf come loose from under her collar, her true nature unclear in any bystander's eyes. All that matters is a quick raise of her pistol, the Makarov aimed at the redhead dropping down in white. The fight isn't a fair one, a shot going off, wide, before a bullet takes her in the skull and goes out the other side. She drops into the snow on a puddle of poppy blood.

One down, only one…

Another bullet goes flying, the calibre far different. A thin spindle goes tearing through cool air, shot off from an entirely different kind of gun, by an entirely different kind of figure. One who reloads with a snap and withdraws behind a house, hardly leaving a trace of noise in the snow. Not over the staccato crack of another bullet, another figure concealed in a woodpile getting an alarmingly accurate angle on Bucky. There might be blood.

|ROLL| Rogue +rolls 1d2 for: 2

Natasha looks coldly as the young girl collapses to the snowy ground, marring the pristine white with the blood, flowing out of the headshot Natasha so mercilessly provided. An endless potential that will not be realized. Natasha delays just a brief second, envisioning herself instead of that girl, how often it could have been her. Sure enough, a shot sails the air, and she tosses herself to the ground, but not fast enough. The bullet pierces her shoulder, and Natasha's own blood builds up on the bloody artwork that scatters on the snow. She holds, unmoving, safe for her eyes which dart in the direction the shot struck her from, trying to spot a glint of the sniper's sights. She figures with a hunt ongoing for Americans, remaining still after being shot, will get the sniper looking for the next target. Hopefully it's not another little girl.

The crack of gunfire is nothing good. It doesn't mark friend from foe by sound alone, and the number of discharged guns already outnumber the two presumed to be wielded by Bucky. Churning a path between the houses, Steve skids to a halt shy of exiting the narrow alleyway entirely, shield at the ready to deflect incoming projectiles. What he sees chills him.

Behind the woodpile, a young child — a boy — not even wearing the peach-fuzz of adolescence. In the kid's hand, a lethal weapon, and by the body language Steve catches in that snapshot of a moment, he knows how to use it. The horror is stark, a brief spike quickly buried by adrenaline and old habits that die hard. Bulling into the kid? Much easier than he expected, especially when the kid swivels and manages to ping a bullet square off the center of the white star. WHAM — it's like plowing through a fence. Even as Steve comes to a stumbling halt, he's praying to God that the kid isn't dead, simply unconscious. Looking back the way he came, he turns on his heel and…

Blood. Blood on a familiar crumpled body. "BUCKY!!!" The speed at which he covers the snowy ground is spectacular and he skids to a halt beside the Soldier's body, shield still held up to half-turtle himself from more fire. "Bucky?! TALK TO ME!"

The shooter gets him - not a rifle-round, but something else. He's moving….and misfortune being what it is, rather than dodging or taking it on the arm and deflecting it, it strikes beyond the spreading metal of the graft, sinking into flesh. Somewhere vital, in fact.

It takes a stride or two for the strength to leave him and he's crumpling forward into the snow, rolling on to his side. Already struggling for breath - this has to have hit a lung, by the red bubbles that show up on his lips. "Steve," It's a wheeze, even as his eyes roll wildly, trying to land sight on the shooter.

«Nikita, NO,» Listening to Bucky try to shout with god only knows what in his lung is painful. «She's an ally!» If Nik's been turned against them, that won't help. But….if he's still on their side. «Don't shoot.» It dissolves into helpless coughing.

Whatever other skill the boy had, it cannot hold up against a full-grown adult man, much less one at the peak of performance wielding a vibranium disk. He goes flying back, not far enough to smash into a house, but he rebounds off a shed with force enough to collapse the flimsy wall. The tools and chicken wire inside go flying as he rolls to the ground, more than likely welcoming broken ribs. There's no getting up with a skitter and running off, an incorrigible Soviet urchin in some Commie Dickensian tale.

Bereslavka is otherwise alarmingly quiet as the echo of gunfire and grunts mingle together, pain a slurry on the frozen wasteland of the compressed snow. Cheap hedgerows in places, fallen fencing, and the water fringed by Soviet powerlines as a line of civilisation along the canal. Who better to race through the snow than white wolves?

The children lie dead or dying. Save one, born of the Rodina, light-footed on the black earth of the Motherland.

|ROLL| Rogue +rolls 1d100 for: 56

|ROLL| Rogue +rolls 1d100 for: 6

When no killing shot follows, Natasha figures her ruse was a success. That or pressing matters had the sniper's attention, she heard screams from not far away, Bucky and Steve are certainly close by. She crawls next to the wall of the house, and goes about a quick field patch work for her shoulder. Not quality work, but just something to ensure she doesn't leave traces of blood everywhere she goes. The many pouches on her belt come very useful for just such situation, holding out your A to Z of spy accessories. Once she's certain she's good the blood flow stopped, for now, she heads for vantage next. She saw a general direction for the sniper, but before she can go and team up with Bucky and Steve, she'll need to take out a threat. Shame she doesn't have her own sniper rifle with her for this one, but she does have a widow line she shoots at the roof to get better lines of sight. Once she gets on top, she starts speeding from rooftop to rooftop, setting chase after the sniper, to return the favor.

As carefully as he can, Steve tries to gather up the near dead-weight of his friend. He's seen plenty of gun wounds over the years and this…this is grade-A bad.

"Hold on, Buck," he grunts. Wait, change of mind. Nikita? The name rings a bell, but it's a hazy point of knowledge right now in the heat of battle. Instead, Steve grips Bucky's wrist and immediately gets about trying to drag him back into the narrow alleyway between the houses, out of line of any further sniping.

«Natasha. Steve, yell for her. Tell her he's not an enemy. And tell Nikita, he's one of the kids. I can't be loud enough.» Yeah, it's really bad, even as Buck's trying to put pressure on the wound. No exit wound, at least. Which is….not good. It's still in there somewhere, presumably. Maybe even caught somewhere in the metal underpinnings of the arm. There's a scarlet trail in the snow, as Steve drags him.

Give it a few minutes and a dark spectre passes through Bereslavka. A death rattle issues from somewhere in the distance, fading out where lungs pierced by broken bone fill and collapse. Noontide opens over the orderly homes in snug against the highway, not a hint of the bright sun anywhere in the late winter gloom. In the meantime, following so much as any kind of trail through the brushy rows of modest trees and overgrown grasses not mown down by the collectivist farmers is infinitely more difficult than running up a road.

Natasha doesn't have a head start compared to the wolf dashing at full bore, breaking out of a lope at a dizzying speed. Pale clothes suit the winter landscape, a broken grey on white obscured by the equally dismal foliage. Which matters, all in all, for tracking a bead on him is rather difficult. He almost seems to pass through the trees without care for branches and trunks, sinuously twisting around them rather than bashing through them. And at one point, it honest to gods of a hateful land like he disappears.

Natasha does her best to track down the remaining sniper, letting someone like that live is a risk, she has no clue it might be an ally. Or one of the Bucklings, but lucky for Bucky, she doesn't need to hear any warnings from Steve, because that sniper is just gone. But this new vantage brings a new reflection on the situation at hand. Bereslavka seems just about abandoned. Devoid of any signs of life. But a foreboding presence in the distance, giving Natasha enough markers to assume an identity, has her freezing in place for a moment. It could be the town has been cleared to set a trap, but it could be the town has been cleared in an entirely unrelating manner. She hopes it's unrelating, because what she sees suggests this mission could very well be the last she'll ever take. The complete lack of life, and the dashing away of the last sniper, brings Natasha to believe they are on their own for the time being. She tries to see if the figure in the distance along the canal is heading in their direction, or away, as she calls out, «we may have big trouble. I believe it's just us…where you located, make a sound, I'll come to you…» Natasha's voice sounds empty, not the usual devoid of emotions empty, but the very unlikely devoid of hope empty.

In dragging Bucky between the houses, Steve gets a good glimpse of the innards. Drapes are a luxury indeed and their lack makes the brutality of their situation all the more clear: bodies. Bodies of unmoving people, still in their beds and on their couches. They wear the slackness of sleep…or death. Instinctively, the Captain knows which.

His friend demands more attention. He listens to Bucky and nods, his spare hand hovering above the entrance wound most unhelpfully. As fast as he can, Steve darts out into the main road bisecting the clusters of housing and shouts, frankly, as loud as his righteous lungs can manage:

"NATASHA! NIKITA! FALL BACK!!!" Surely both recognize that voice? Once he's emptied of air, a defunct balloon, he books it back into the alley and skids to a kneeling halt beside Bucky. "Stay with me, Buck, come on."

He's trying, trying to use his coat to staunch the wound. To stay with Steve. "'m here," he protests, weakly. "'m here." Crumpled in the alley, head reeling. «I'm sorry,» he says, in a whisper. «It's all been a trap.»

Nikita is nowhere to be seen, were he even possibly visible in the first place with the carefully colour-blocked attire to confound vision. Distorted sightlines around buildings would prove challenging for even the perceptive to pick him out, but going to ground, he is beautifully suited for stealth. A white wolf in a fragmented winter landscape: how can the trained eye follow that? It goes both ways, of course. Hide in white, you don't stand out either. Just one rule: don't bleed.

Captain America's warning resonates over a deathly quiet village, where not a sputtering furnace gives protest and no curl of smoke comforts against the adrenaline rush. And in some respects, being the lone source of sound reinforces just how empty the place is. Scythed right down.

Step by inevitable step he lays waste to distance. Conquest of vast stretches of forgettable terrain bring him to the point of tears. Several hundred meters separate him from the heart of the forgettable hamlet, a place barely worthy of a name on a map except for its position at the headwaters of a reservoir where the canal spreads out. Those reinforced boots punch holes in the frigid crust of six months of winter, the flowing waters braiding the Volga and the Don following in his wake. Upwellings play escort.

Arkady Rossovich is far from deaf, and he need only follow the hollow shout with the inevitability of night chasing the day, of cold smothering the hearthfires, and the forest and the steppes being so terribly, terribly unkind…

Natasha easily makes her way to group up with Steve and Bucky. Her white outfit easily blends with the white snow, just as Nikitia knows, only she's had one misstep. She got shot, and even though she patched it to the best of her ability, the spreading red stain on her makeshift bandaging is an eye sore in this terrain.

Steve may not know Natasha nearly as well as Bucky does, by way of Winter Soldier, so Steve may not know just how grave a situation they are in based on her expression. But Bucky would likely see that inevitability reflected in her empty visage, no light in her blue eyes, she seems as if she just saw a premonition of her own death. She speaks now very softly, and for once in English, "you remember Comrade Arkady?" She asks Bucky, giving him a few moments, and if need be adding, "Rossovich of course…" and by then Bucky should definitely understand. "I am only coming up with a pretense of my having captured you, presenting you to him, and hopefully an opportunity will present itself. If we fight head on…I'm afraid, this is it."

"Natasha. Get Steve out of here," Bucky's speaking English, too. "We can't handle Rossovich. Not in this state. We have to run. You have to run." There's a kind of resignation in his face, too - a weariness that makes him look far older than his usual twenty five or so years. "Both of you. Get to Volgograd, if you can. Find my girl, the rest of the kids. If you can't….head south to Iran." The implications are clear.

|ROLL| Rogue +rolls 1d100 for: 84

"Dammit, no." Is that Steve cursing? It is, even as he stands up from his crouched position next to Bucky. Yes, he recognizes Natasha and in his heart, he's happy to see a fellow soul alive. "We're not leaving him here, he'll die. He needs medical aid." With shield held at his side, he glares at the Widow. "I'm not leaving him. Not again. Whomever this Arkady is, he's going to regret sticking his nose into our business. We're not running."

He swallows hard, gaze sliding off to one side of the alleyway between the houses. Smudged figures still lie prone in the interior, seen through grimed windows. "I'll take an opportunity," he finally says, trying to keep the panic at Buck's state to a minimum, to bury it away beneath duty and survival.

He has no need to run, no urgency about the walk back to a doomed speck on a forgettable stretch of map. The corridors of Operation Uranus and the Siege of Stalingrad are littered by countless households and named fields wiped away in the onslaught of violence, drumbeats of war carried in every tank tread and retorting salvo.

With every step Arkady approaches nearer, the ground leached underfoot. The water swirls where he has been. Omega Red is far from secretive, painted that red banner hue under his armour, his crop of brilliant golden curls dusted idly in the wind. Angelic the hair may be, but there all semblance to kindness ends. In the distance, a chopper crackles.

Natasha takes a deep breath, Bucky likely has the right idea, and it also means the end of him. More importantly to Natasha, the end of the Winter Soldier. She reported his treachery to the Red Room, Omega Red will be after his blood. He has no chance alone. But Steve will not budge, he will not leave Bucky behind, this leads back to her initial plan, "we don't have much time, Bucky, and Steve will not leave you…we cannot outpace Rossovich with your injury, should I take you prisoners? We have to decide now…because I'll need to cuff you." She looks from Bucky to Steve, "you both can easily break out of them, after all, I just hope there's a good opportunity to turn tables, or escape. The river has been wild, no?"

If Steve won't go without him….Bucky's struggling up to his feet. It's an awful sight, like watching him resurrect himself from the dead - standing, swaying, almost knock-kneed. Niki and presumably Laz are out there - if anyone can put a kink in Comrade Rossovich's day, it's them. "Steve, we have to go," he says. "Natasha….we can get to the water again. It'll help me hold together long enough to get away…." A shake of his head. "We can't stand and fight. Steve, he's a monster, he'll carve you up like a Christmas ham." Suiting the action to the word, he's starting to move.

"Nobody carves me up." It sounds a little petulant coming from Steve, but he sets his jaw, very ready to be that short and scrawny kid from Brooklyn fighting like a cornered terrier. "But fine." He's quick to slip a lifting arm beneath Bucky's armpit, supporting the man as best he can.

"Stall him, Natasha." It has that subtle lift of question to it, but is more parts stern request than anything else. He reaches the shield back over his back to click it into place and then turns to continue towards the direction of the river, frog-marching the wounded Winter Soldier at double speed.

The path to the water requires crossing the road and straight through the other side of the hamlet, cutting right across the bow of the inbound soldier. In the distance, across the bank lie the clustered forces of the 21st Guards, and with motor rifle in their name, that means tanks and Katyushas, the bulk of Southern Russia's mechanized cavalry. As the fabled charioteers of Egypt formed the shock troops of their era, so do the myriad vehicles at the disposal of those officers and their far from foolhardy Soviet commanders serve a similar purpose. Somewhere those forces are gathering, following the serpentine route, their champion — or loose cannon — sent ahead to soften up the opposition.

Or there are the southern shores to run for, away from Arkady, where the waters of the Don River race for the Volga, and eventually the greatest of the world's inland seas.

"Peggy wants me to maintain cover," Natasha reminds Steve, "if I face him, that avenue is closed for good." Natasha does not look happy, as she notes, "I have major victories in removing some of the foremost informants at the hands of the West," she intones, "I can approach to guide him after you, but then we will need to split and rendezvous later…I can try and misdirect them. Point at the water, while you head the other way, use Don River to reach for Volga…" it likely puts Natasha in the most danger, but it will also give Bucky and Steve the most time, without them needing to compromise themselves by playing prisoners. "You want me to approach him, or you want me to help you escape…time to act is now, no more discussion." Clearly she will not fight him, she will rely on her status at top Black Widow operative to simply join the hunt. With her report of infiltrating SHIELD under cover of a double agent, she has all the wherewithall to learn of this extraction, and follow suit to ensure its failure.

"Keep your cover. Do what's needed, but help us if you can. Misdirect him - approach him," Buck orders, flatly. "If we get out of this, you can find us. If we don't - again, Volgograd, the girl, the boys. They don't have any idea what they've got in her, I pray." Back to the water. How does he keep going? If ever there was a moment to offer twisted thanks to Zola's ingenuity, it's now. He'd've been dead ages ago.

Hail Hydra.

Steve echoes Bucky's suggestions as he looks over his shoulder, back at Natasha.

"Yes, stall him. Do whatever necessary. We need time." With that, he goes back to helping his friend gimp towards the river proper, as fast as their serum-infused bodies can manage it. At least there was the purlioned baker's bun eaten by the Solider what seems like forever ago. Steve's stomach growls, reminding him that there was no pastry for him, but he ignores it. On and on, run-run-run.

If fate's a bitch, then pucker up. The road is long and hard and narrow, the river wild, and the shadows cruel. That vision in red trudges ever near, pulling with him the stolen lives that fuel his power and the energy supplied by a whole village to amplify whatever Soviet-made creation he is. No less terrible than Natasha or Bucky…

… or, one could say, Steve in his fashion.

The flight away from him requires calculation, or else the journey is going to be biblical: lashed forth from the promised land. A roll of his shoulders and the horror becomes real in a blur of carbonadium telescoping from the confines of his armour. If only the armour were what moved, instead of the first twisting lashes that gave the impression of four arms minutes ago on a snowy roof-top. Arkady's appendages twist in lithe abandon, writhing around him, a minute promise of what is sure to come. So does the taskmaster goad the fleeing heroes ahead of him.

"Then get moving," Natasha says sharply to Steve and Bucky, as she takes a look at her bandaging, now all of a sudden being shot turns into a blessing. At least for her ploy. It will look far more convincing that she's lost Steve and Winter Soldier if she's been shot. Winter Soldier is one who trained her almost exclusively, it makes sense he would be the one to know just where to expect her and be ready. Which is the perfect scenario for her to admit to Arkady's superiority and needing his assistance. No doubt his ego would enjoy the sweet music of the Black Widow asking for his assistance.

While Bucky and Steve go on their way, she gets up to the nearest rooftop, and makes sure to leave traces of her blood on a supposed sniper's nest she takes, on the off chance anyone inspects the spot. Giving Bucky and Steve a bit of a head start, she then looks towards the approaching Arkady, and sighs. If there was one person in the Red Room she ever was truly afraid of, even with all she's been through, it's been Omega Red. And now she'll have to have a brief conversation with him, and hope he believes her. Rolling on her back, letting the snow paint even more with her bloodied shoulder, she reaches to fire a flare into the air. Drawing attention to her position, she expects to be found by Omega Red.

It's a flashback to some of the nastier battles of the Western Front. Bucky bleeding, his weight dragging on Steve. But moving, of all things. He's bled, he's suffered, and if he's running on anything now, it's all the re-engineering he's undergone. A far cry from Mr. Stark's efforts in a clean, comfortable New York lab. It's been almost a year since the Russians had him…..this had better not be the end of the streak.

EVen if they're getting ready to hurl themselves back into he waters.

Those who fight and run away live to fight another day. This, Steve keeps repeating to himself even as a prickling gathers between his shoulder-blades. Almost there. Almost to that awful river that seems to want to swallow them up, never to regurgitate them unless forced to do so. Wouldn't Russia be happy, finding the water-logged body of Captain America on the shores.

"Stay with me, Buck," he pants, just now reaching the edges of the foaming water itself.

Serpentine meanders weave after Arkady, the flooding river rising with him and overspilling the canal by whatever tormented means. The answer is scripted large on the annals of Russian folk history, their tales carried through the long winter nights. A man who can sing to the beasts invoked the lifeblood of Russia against her malefactors, and somewhere, some place, the swirling black depths of the constrained canal answer in a furious tide.

Arkady is coming for Natasha, as sure as anything else, and the twin serpentine limbs snap and twist as though tasting the air. They very well might be, sensing things beyond her enhanced ken. With him goes the last flickering heartbeats left in the fallen, crushed out lives tamped away. Slow, slow, that drain on her life begins as he moves up the lane, and she can nigh well feel her vitality starting to ebb away. It begins in subtle ways, the fatigue and the stress of the day pushing her into the hazy glow of a need to rest. Perhaps feeling the cold more acutely, settling into her bones, into her joints. He doesn't take a direct route to her but walks the labyrinth, weaving around dead gardens and dormant sheds with a stock of firewood to keep the cold at bay. The cold, but not the brother of famine. His is a cruel steed, and another unforgiving horse gallops onwards.

A husk of a tank waits at the bridgehead at Parkhomenko, another blip on the steppe marked only by a mint green pumphouse and not a tree in sight. Their only point of escape is the reservoir, and Steve and Bucky — brothers in arms, brothers in suffering — are flung headlong into the wild, contorted rapids that grab them almost immediately. Water is awake and altogether too alive, hauling their carcasses in the flight of winter breaking and cracking to accommodate this new change. The Widow upstream doesn't get a choice: every second she delays, they're hauled further from her, sent hurtling through the scrub-shrouded reservoir downstream.

It's cold, so cold. Captives of the Don, paying tribute to the Volga, go spinning past broken homes partially submerged and bodies locked in the weeds, bent over, floating alongside them, frozen to death in their hovels and watching with empty, suffering eyes. Places without name, places without cenotaphs to memorialize them. They're leaving the province of pestilence and entering the domain of death.

Natasha lies on her back after having shot the flare, letting her shoulder bleed into the snow covered roof top. She doesn't need to look onwards to tell Arkady is drawing nearer, she can feel it in her bones. The chill of death seems to follow Arkady, and standing in his presence must be what it feels like to stand before Satan in his court of Hell. On the plus side, the fact Omega Red is approaching, so seeps at her life force, that the shot wound looks all the more severe. His presence makes it difficult for her to pick herself up, so she waits until she'll see his face looking down at her, before she smiles. Yes, Black Widow is that good, she can smile in the presence of Omega Red. «Comrade Rossovich, I'm afraid the Winter Soldier got the better of me this time…I'm glad you're on hand to punish him.»

The Black Widow usually sets up a sniper's nest and eliminates from afar, where then is her sniper rifle? «He was expecting me at this position, shot me down and took my dragunov, he knows how deadly I am with it…he remembers. But he has the American hero with him. Captain America. I intercepted information from SHIELD, they are doing extraction…» she points with her finger, presumeably at the direction the Winter Soldier escaped with Captain America, slightly skewed, as it shows they actually braved a crossing along Arkady's path rather than avoid him outright. «Winter Soldier knows the lay of the land…he may be traitor to the Mother Land, but he did not lose his touch…»

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