1964-12-02 - Project Virgo: Holy Grail
Summary: What do the masters of Voronezh Academy want with the Winter Soldier?
Related: Project Virgo
Theme Song: None
rogue bucky 

OOC Note: Big plot spoilers here on out.

Forward, the choice forward is walking through the central chamber in the dacha unless he plans on climbing up an air vent again. He's already on the main floor, not the top, but the one where a pair of doors led outside into the carriage drive. Then just a run forty kilometers back to Voronezh and another two thousand back to safe territory past the Iron Curtain. Or he could dodge south for Iran, the Persian kingdom relatively friendly to American interests, provided Bucky can swim the length of the Caspian Sea. Turn south directly and head for Turkey, steering a boat along the Don River into the Bosphorus. They'd never expect the Barnish Inquisition.

The stairs give him a corner. His nearest exit through the east wing marches right past all those guards, the drugged children, and into fresh air. How to advance?

One of the young men starts to chuckle.

So, next level. That makes sense. Maybe he can make it up the stairs without them noticing them. It's a better chance than trying to dash past that gauntlet. Up he eels, but….his judgement is not what it was. Not after that train ride, and that night, and god only knows what singing in his veins.

The next level: step by step winds upwards into a long, low room roughly etched in by dark patches and few lights. There needs not be much, honestly, because they sit there and wait. A man with a cup of tea, a samovar glistening on a table beside him. He dresses in a suit, dark, and fine shoes. Beside him is a guard who stands, still chuckling softly. There's not much to hear aside from that, the scraping syllables coming out from the 40-something man in plain khaki clothes, good boots, the image of a nice Soviet officer.

«Come in from the cold, have you?» The question comes from that ever so pleasant tea-drinker.

He can see Bucky drag himself into persona, half-staggered. «I have infiltrated SHIELD,» he says, with neither pride not apology, merely stating a fact. «Has Agent Romanoff brought in the information?» A last throw of the dice, an attempt to drag that tattered cover around him. This is the espionage walk of shame, showing up at some facility in the middle of the night.

The man with the curling black hair has all the refinement of a Leningrad officer combined with the diction usually found taught in schools of diplomacy and politics. He holds the handle lightly in long fingers, graceful, a violinist or a pianist in every articulation of his knuckles and fingertips. His expression may be somewhat severe, but for all he's mostly clean-shaven, it only emphasizes a solidity. «Romanova? Negative.» Volga, for that's his name, shakes his head.

The fellow in the suit, Viktor, easily transitions away from the wall. «SHIELD. Yes, we rather anticipated someone would sooner or later. Report.»

«I've escaped after monthsof SHIELD brainwashing.» It's what Natasha's been reporting, after all. «But they believe their imprint of the Barnes persona strong enough to trust me with entry level clearance. They had some of my fellow subjects in captivity, but I was able to assisst in freeing some. I take it none have made it in. They must still be at large in America. I know at least one is fulfilling his mission. The others have received brainwashing and possible psychic violation and may be confused and in need of assisstance. There was also discussion of a SHIELD mole in Department X. But since I was of too low clearance to likely have accurate information and my loyalty was still considered uncertain by some, I suspect it was intended as misdirection.» In English, he adds, "Chicken feed."

Calm, Volga pours himself more tea from the samovar. The fragrant darkness implicit in the deep-night brew might sing to a dark soul. It is very much Russian, to its bones, in every leaf and lashing of unsugared water. He raises the cup to his mouth, drinking down the flavour of the motherland, the very bones of the earth.

That leaves Viktor to assess and regard, separating chaff from the grains. «Then why have you come here, and not Moscow or Novosibersk? This is not an open unit to you, soldier. Department X would not direct you here.»

|ROLL| Bucky +rolls 1d20 for: 7

«I was not able to escape until I was deemed trustworthy enough to be part of a SHIELD operation in Berlin. This seemed like the most direct route to safe contact with the least likelihood of capture or interception. I acted….on the spur of the moment, without time to warn or make contact with our operatives in East Berlin. They are still searching for me there.» He's reflexively braced into parade rest. Winter….is pushing. Leaning on what confines him.

«He's come home,» announces Volga, his cultured voice rising and slipping around the Russian syllables in a liquid caress no less generous or kind than the Ob. «Sit and take tea. I assume the refreshments were… insufficient. Had you but come to us in the first place, we would have offered you a finer homecoming.»

«You rather smell like a swamp,» Viktor adds, his tone crisp. He thumbs the edge of the table. «Ah. Quality is a rare thing in this day and age. Still searching? Must be quite disappointed to have missed this.» This. Not you. Winter's alarm bells might be ringing. Worse. Ringing, wailing, a frantic claxon.

Because that gentleman with the tea who gestures to the table gives the slightest indication of a nod. «Break free, see what comes of it. The struggle is fascinating. That's the only reason to live, isn't it? Confinement is a plague.»

Viktor flexes his fingers, giving some circulation as he moves to the other side of the table holding the samovar. Bucky may or may not want any. Suit himself, he's pouring a cup for himself, and not apologizing. «And what you expect to gain here? We've already rung for the scientist. This is a courtesy, naturally.»

He's bewildered, and it's clear on his face, that little line appearing between his brows. «I apologize for my appearance. I had to be sure I'd made it to an allied facility,» he offers, apologetically. «Spies and infiltrators are everywhere.» He sits, accepts tea passively. «Passage to my proper sphere, I hope. I have no resources.»

Viktor chuckles again, and he sips the brew in question. It warms the cockles, if not anything else about the broad, dark-haired man. He sweeps his palm over his skull, clearly not suffering overly much with the problem of the current hour. Dawn is still a ways off. «Of course. Is there any further report you have to make on the mission? You have not finished your operation. Your handlers will be pleased to see you returned to your proper place. As soon as we are finished here, back to him.»

Him. Only one him that would be, and his vodka was stuck in the icebox. Pieces on a domino chain falling yet?

It's a different story for the man seated in his chair, smooth timbre to his voice polished by the passage of time and thought. Tea lubricates the throat, after all. He sets aside his cup, leaning forward slightly. Hands curl around his knee. A fascinating specimen is the Winter Soldier, seen up close or afar, and the clinical precision in that gaze leaves no inch of shoulder or arm unturned, no millimeter of neck or supporting muscle untouched. If a look can be a violation while holding no force at all, he's mastered it, staring through clothes, finding the intersection of heart, mind, and soul. «You've been busy, as I can see. Always a pleasure to watch the work of an expert in action. Prime specimen, we should expect nothing but the best.» He sighs, a faint outpouring of breath through those generous lips. «And yet we do not receive the results despite conditioning and refining the material to be free of all impurities. There is ever the challenge to a bold plan, where does the flaw lie?»

A tick of fingertips. Then comes that voice. The voice of dreams. "Gentlemen. This is such an unexpected… opportunity." Pauses click and carry from all directions. A game of shades and possibilities teasing his senses? It could be a hallucination, something dredged from the dark sway of a train and the certainty of death, children in drugged sleep and his own slower cryogenesis from the heat robbed from his body in a cattle car.

"Yes, welcome home." Arnim Zola.

It's not a visible jolt, the jump of an animal who's put down his paw in an electrified cage. It's the slow rise of ice water on someone at the edge of drowning. The pair of them can see it sweep over him, washing expression and color out of his face. Bringing out the beads of sweat on his brow and lip.

The teacup, full of its bitter sweetness and made of that gorgeous cobalt and gilt china they're so proud of at Lomonosov, shatters in the metal hand that holds it.

Cold water to the soul washes away the prospective comfort of a reunion with strangers in that shadowy, vaulted space. Not nearly enough lamps light the second floor, which altogether resembles a hall of some kind, where perhaps balls were held and the Tsarist elite whirled arm in arm. Put a quartet of musicians in the corner, and imagine the strains of Chopin and Tchaikovsky plucked from violas and violins to content the powerhouses of the age. For now, no such pleasures exist and the incomplete space smells faintly of beeswax and the dark tea. What happens when the samovar empties? Will there be another run to the kitchen, or fresh toasts made with schnapps, vodka, spilled blood?

The pair who face the Winter Soldier don't ring many bells; Bucky is unlikely all that different. The voice, on the other hand, pricks the conscience and pierces into the bowels. Broken pieces tumble to the ground, crushed remnants spread across painstakingly cleaned floors. Someone will have to wash that, later.

"Would you like to sit?" Russian is the lingua franca, and Volga brushes his thumb down the arm of his chair, crossing one leg at the knee. His shoes shine as though made of oil. "An unexpected turn of events." He doesn't speak of the shattered remnants.

Viktor's disapproval is a remote matter, speaking volumes. "Report on East Berlin. SHIELD there."

"Agents Fury and Coulson in play," he recites, flicking the last droplets from alloy fingertips with a kind of idle disdain. Winter doesn't give a damn about broken china, nor does he move to grovel and pick up the remnants. That's for the peasantry. The persona….it doesn't fit now, no more than a snake can cram itself back into shed skin. The jig may be up, but he'll play this out until they choose to end it. "Director Carter on site to supervise," he adds. "Coulson and I were dispatched to inspect three sites for suspected extraction of meta dissidents." And drily, he recites the three locations - the U-bahn station, the second site, and the unvisited one.

"Seniors. Why?" Viktor doesn't mince words, allowing the opportunity for Bucky to expound. Oddly neither he or his dark-haired, saturnine companion rely upon notepads for this inquiry, conducted in sharp, quick questions wrapped around the core of fact. "They obtained the sites. How?"

Volga's eyes do not blink. It takes time to even notice this, but he lowers his hooded lids, never fully shutting them. Neither has he demonstrated an overt need to shift about, wriggling with anticipation or anxiety. Only the sips of tea interrupt the placid approach.

"I wonder why you followed them, soldier?" Arnim Zola again.

It's a little song and dance, a charade. "Unknown to me," he says, easily. His hands are on the arms of his chair, now. "My clearance is only level four." He doesn't glance back at the apparent source of Zola's voice. "Followed who? The SHIELD agents, or the dissidents intended for export?"

"The latter," Viktor asks, employing the cool slant of a razor to dissect truth from lies, purposes from unclear chaff that doesn't mean much to them. Presumably this implies any number of things, his interest cloaked in the banal regard of an executive to a mission report or business status update possibly provided by a middle manager of sorts. They have them in the Communist world as much as the capitalist, under different trappings. "Presumably you learned something of SHIELD's interests. How they chose the site. How did they send you there? How you ended up from there to here. The children."

"And why the children are not here," Volga adds dryly.

"No," he replies, bluntly, lapsing into Winter's lack of affect. The numbness of a kind of despair can be an anesthetic. Let them play. "They do not confide motives or overarching plans to low-level agents. I was shipped to Berlin, told where to go. SHIELD agents took the children at the third site. I looped back in order to gain access to the train they were intended to depart by. It seemed the only chance to escape from SHIELD control."

"How interesting. The reports suggest a more muddied influence. A ghost stretching out his hands to perform miracles." Zola's disembodied voice dances through the room, but for all they know, he's standing in the doorway watching everything unfold with a geneticist's clinical eye.

Volga's matte, flat gaze shifts away from the wall to Bucky again, and reads what he will from the face, deeper.

"I know nothing of ghosts." There's that offhand tone. No irritation at being questioned. No attempt to cut his eyes and see where Zola might be. "My viewpoint was limited."

"Our colleague implies you were the ghost. They are attributing a problem with the Americans to you. The loss of important material." Viktor taps the samovar as though to hear the rushing liquid inside ripple about, sounding off on how far another cup or two might go. He makes such a casual measure of it. "Have you any comments on that?"

Volga continues to watch, the slow shift of a smirk — his fatalistic smile — present.

There's a quirk of a smile at that. "One of the stray clones," he suggests. "They have several in custody yet. As far as I knew, none had shifted allegiance, but it had become clear that some had abilities beyond the source."

"A clone," repeats Viktor. His response is something slow and thoughtful, congealed by the low rumblings of a laugh not truly raised to the fore. "Is that what they call them, or only you, perhaps?"

Maybe something of a pet joke there, and something much more series. Thoughts slide away into the arctic ice, concealed by the precise, crisp restraint he likes so well.

"Wild speculation on your part, soldier," Zola adds. "Is that a trace of jealousy detected? It was inevitable. The future surpasses the present."

"That's the term I heard used, though as far as I was aware they had no actual solid data on the source of the apparent reproductions." He doesn't ask what they actually are. Above his (nonexistent) paygrade. "I have no speculation, as I have neither reason nor data to do so. There is nothing to be jealous of."

Some answers are not wanted afterward. Some might not be wanted now. "It grows late," Viktor announces as he puts his teacup back on the saucer, the saucer upon the table in a proper set seated with an odd degree of solemnity. The dark undercurrents of wrongness, enshrined in violence and science, by comparison, are even more bitter than the tea they've supped upon. "You have been absent very long from your appointed role. It will be our colleague's privilege to proceed with the normal state of things. Unconventional for here."

"The facilities will be sufficient, if distasteful," Zola agrees. "We shall not disturb affairs more than we have. He is off active duty."

And that spells one thing.

Volga's eyes gleam.

For all he can play for Winter's callous lack of regard for himself, that beaten docility - his body can't play along. He's never been much of an actor, James. And there's that sweat at his temples again, despite the cool of the room.

This was inevitable from the moment he passed the Russian border. Words, reports, debriefing, excuses, no matter….at the end of all of it, the chair, the bonds, the wall of lightning and the blinding dark.

It's not Winter's stoicism that has him silent, unflinching. Winter's rising eagerly like a whale from a deep sounding, his twisted version of freedom gleaming above like sunlight shimmering down from the surface….but for now, the tongue in that body is cloven to the roof of his mouth, James's thoughts clashing. He could snatch up the shards of blue and gold from the floor, open an artery fast enough that even would-be healers and his own swift healing can't keep him from bleeding out. But he can't. Too many ties to this world. He'll have to retreat to confinement, in turn, see if he can bury memories and identity deep again, and hold out as long as he can.

"As I thought. You don't like that suggestion one bit. See, now, my dear colleagues. He has his own opinion on matters. Not quite the soulless operative you led me to believe." Volga tips his head to the side, a brief line marking his brow and smoothing away after a moment. The chair creaks when he leans forward. Viktor isn't moving anywhere fast though they probably both know the risk of this, and Zola… where is he, anyways? A voice from the shadows. A presence without presence.

The dark-haired man in his fine suit isn't terribly older than Bucky himself, not quite wearing his years. "You know the odds. The investment. Is it like this every time they decommission you, putting you away for another dark hour?"

Assuming Zola's present at all in the flesh. The vodka in the fridge might indicate that, but then….why not be diffuse, if you can be. Accomplish more, travel less, be present where you're needed.

At that question, he fixes the tea drinker with a pale eye and says, with just the faintest hint of irony in his voice, "……how would I know?"

Viktor makes a dismissive gesture, sitting back in his seat. His part is done, hands washed of the matter before him. Things will take their proper course under the observation of skillful hands and scientifically honed minds, academics given their leverage to perform what they will. All he needs is a cigar and newspaper to complete the look. "Manners," he murmurs, and that is that, as far as he is willing to push the matter.

But Volga proves another story, interceding not as some dark-winged angel stepped out of a concealed Orthodox icon. His intentions clearly stay the arrival of the four guards, the bowtied little man whose broad forehead inevitably carries a bowed line of thought and excitement. For there is always that with Zola, asserting himself over all the brawn of his better creations, revealing how helpless and weak they are before the stirring machinations and new creations he has to unveil. What wonders are locked away in a place such as this, where somewhere only a few dozen feet away the spitting image of someone precious and dear presumably dozes in her bed?

Volga flicks his hair back behind his ear. "Yes, that business of a clean start when the operation is finished, the plan shelved for another time. A neat method, if imperfect. You really remember nothing after the business begins, all longing, rusted, and such?" Two words flung out careless and easy, darts at a target placed barely arm's length away. "Neat and bitterly a waste. Although for something as valuable as you, effectively necessary. I can see the sweat. I can taste your fear. Does it make your stomach clench and roll? No need to answer, we shouldn't give the scientist too much to review before he sets his hands on you and takes all his measurements, pins you like a butterfly. That comes soon enough." He steeples his fingers. "Too many scientists, not enough artists. I respect the brilliance in the man. I regret it has none of the poetry of Tolstoy, the celebration. I would very much like to know where you've condemned the delivery due to be made here, soldier, and whatever compelled you to do so. Were you following orders, swallowing your own tongue on rebellion?" He taps his finger once. "Troublesome thinking that. For a minor agent of SHIELD, throwing a wrench into their plans was out of the question. Out to bedevil us and find a way back into the fold? Not with your training. No, the links aren't adding up at all. Did you do it for some dark sense of heroism, a noblesse oblige that might correct all your wrongs?"

Volga wants to talk. To question the little tin soldier. What an oddity. Not once, not ever, has anyone on this side of the Iron Curtain ever sought his opinion on anything save the practicability of a particular aspect of an operation. He's not supposed to have them. You don't solicit your rifle's thoughts on a given matter, nor wonder what the Katyusha thinks of in its idle moments.

Buck's eyeing him askance. "I remember," he says, slowly, "What I'm told. How the mission proceeds. And when it's done….they wipe me and I don't anymore. Not really. I'm nine months old, however old this body is. But I know there's pain. Pain is what I know." His gaze is flat. "What wrongs? I'm the Winter Soldier. Wrong is failing a mission."

Yes, and the Politburo never wants to know the opinions of liberated serfs. KGB handlers don't care about their ground-level contacts. The bull's thoughts do not concern the commune. Now comes the matter of rights and wrongs, and some madman consultant entertained by the state bucking the trend. Viktor must be very bored indeed.

"Nine months. Just the right time for this rare conception to produce something new from the fruits of great labours." Volga remains at that forward slant, utterly fearless about remaining in reach of that vibranium arm. And he is. A sudden shift in the seat to burst forward, explosive motion propelling Bucky forward, would close the distance in record time. What sort of defense might anyone feasibly mount to match the Winter Soldier, the serum throbbing through a network of veins that called for a sliver of porcelain? "The unscheduled delivery to West Berlin was not asked of you. It was a failure. Those others, the erstwhile clones — the choice of the thoughtless drones in the west to call them that, yes? — would not have performed the task unless directly commanded. Which, how could they be in captivity?" He doesn't smile.

The pause stretches out, a thin thread snapped by a dark brow lifting. "So you leave only one likelihood, unless the story was a total fabrication. Rebellious weapon, dangerous. The mission to infiltrate SHIELD gave limited results. He's too well known," this to Viktor, "and a liability on that front. Whatever are they going to do with you? At least on ice, you never have to worry. This setback is only a minor loss in the scheme of things. I question their methods. Our students don't have this streak of wildness in them. They do what's for the good of their country. Clearly the environment and studies encourage that rather than an inherent disposition, from what I see."

"I was sent to kill Steven Rogers. I killed him. The presence of multiple healers on site was….an unforeseen factor.I was caught. I've been in SHIELD's grip, and had to play along, or they'd've just killed me. Many of them wanted to," He spreads his hands. "I don't know what SHIELD's managed to do with the other Soldiers they've taken. They have access to powerful psychics. Maybe they've turned one. Again, that wasn't confided to me, though I was used to retrieve one of them. I've reported my experiences. I will be corrected or decommissioned as my handlers or their superiors deem necessary."

"Yes, and you're a complication for them. I do so wish you had come announced yourself off the first. See, complications do not improve your situation or life expectancy, do they? Zola will have a devil of a time trying to explain away a few things in these reports. Why you were sneaking around and bothering one of the students. This unexpected concern in a man who should be free of attachments," Volga replies, quiet, contained. "It wasn't as though you did not know where the front door was. I imagine Arnim will be displeased to know you're one of mine now. But for the good of the motherland, we should not be selfish about our resources."

"I must protest," Zola speaks again. And that voice is much, much closer. In the shadows, movement. "The taint is a temporary situation, reversible, and he is prepared now to be decommissioned?"

….what does Volga want from him? If he's to be destroyed, why the questions? Ruined tools are destroyed, or recycled. Expression bland, Bucky offers no explanation. Let them wonder, or let them jolt it out of him when the time comes. Every man has a breaking point….and Zola knows where Buck's been broken already.

What indeed. To rankle a great scientific mind? To insert doubt? Whatever game he's playing has tacit consent from Viktor and certainly no trouble in managing Zola. Zola, who is not easily managed, and fuming in his corner or playing along in a game as old as the stage in any civilized nation. Greek city-states were dancing along with Euripides and Aeschylus in similar roles.

"Condemning you to a frosty cell for the foreseeable future is wasteful. I have little taste for it." Volga steeples his fingers. "Your decommissioning is preventable. So I will lay out a very simple proposition for you in terms that are not negotiable barring some resounding excellence. Unlike certain colleagues, I am not inhibited by a lack of vision. Recover and return the SHIELD hostages for the Motherland. The dissidents would be a benefit, but they are secondary to the detained personnel."

He waits a moment before continuing. "Failing to return them, terminate them. They are not stable long-term and SHIELD in no way can provide the conditions for any quality of life."

|ROLL| Bucky +rolls 1d20 for: 15

Not a flicker in his face, not a twitch of a brow. No sweat, this time. It can't possibly be this easy, saying yes, scooting away back to the West. It has to be a trap. "I am at the state's disposal,'' he agrees, bland as a snowfield. No one's invoked the words, not fully….and the keys are there.

But the eyes, the eyes can give him away. Because it's so clearly not Winter looking out of them.

"No. You are at my disposal." Volga on that point is very clear. Arnim must be swallowing his tongue and choking on it. In his seat, Viktor maintains his mild state, that cool regard fixed flat on the Winter Soldier and not the man speaking of heresies. "I act to the benefit of the state but your continued existence, as such, is at my discretion. The assets are not in a position to complete their missions. The longer they remain in custody, the greater their liability to the country and themselves."

He steeples his long fingers, pressure drawing a steep triangle, gazing over the line flat at Bucky. Those eyes are black, in this low light, the brown rich loess soil and coal dust mixed together. "Without essential support they rely upon, the assets suffer immeasurably. Bring them back before the end of December. Expediency directly impacts their physical health. They die by degrees without the motherland to support them. As you yourself are dependent upon Rus'. Though I am certain the concept has never been overtly demonstrated to you before now. These aren't idle words. Your children are dying in front of you without intervention, and that intervention does not exist outside the land that nurtured them."

"You have not seen it already?" Viktor asks.

That fucker. He knows. He's yanked aside the armor and struck in that most vulnerable spot, and it's a mortal wound. No wonder he's not using the code words. It's a perverse compliment - knowing that whatever patched together scrap of Barnes is in there will fight harder than Winter ever would for those unfortunates. "The ones I have encountered seem robust enough," he replies, tone flat. "I have seen some mental discomfort, but nothing that spoke of physical disability." Lapsing back into Winter's mask. Choke on that indeed, Zola. Whatever devil Volga might be, he doesn't compare to the Lightbringer …..and once you've been face to face with even a hint of that glory, some modicum of fear has to wither and die.

Volga laughs. The sound is warm wood and polished brass, a splash of cognac in a glass. He's the cello to Zola's fly-bent violin, the lower rounded notes pulled by the bow stretched over taut, trembling strings. Set in C major, he sets them on a journey that predawn morning transcends simple communication. It's a single piece of momentum, a solo revelation composed on a slow smile. "Let us be clear. You have not an idea about their physical deficiencies, and the students would never deign to tell you. Expressing their complaints, consider that for a moment. When have you ever been encouraged to do that? Have you ever spoken up when it hurt too much or the road was too long, too hard?" Those screws twist, one sensuous rotation at a time, and see what the pressure will do.

His signature expression, hitched eyebrow mildly higher, would be near ophidian did such features belong to mambas or kraits. "Perhaps you keep the illusion of control, but this body of nine months, this mind of thirty years, do not share the least frame of reference. The students are kept in an ideal situation until called upon for their missions. Name an approved operation when the motherland did not provide for your needs. They had what they needed to be safe, whole, and able. They have been deprived for weeks, months, and damaged in the process." Another of those silky pauses wraps around them, threads in a noose pulled tighter slowly, carefully. Their counterparts, old and young, are still as the game is played by rules established long ago, by players far past those present. Nebuchadnezzar contrived the cheats ages past. Russia never changes. Diplomacy never changes. "What would you do cast out into the cold? After six months. A year? Five? No need to answer, for we can chart the trajectory for ourselves. The blackouts, the psychological damage, severe troubles made worse and permanent, after a time. Say no, then, walk out and you condemn your own kind. So be it upon you. Put a bullet in their heads, spare them the increased deterioration. It would be a loss, a terrible waste, but in the end less of one than the havoc they can wreak. That you will, if that taint isn't removed from you."

"……why are you offering me a choice?" It's a betrayal of his position, knight masquerading as pawn, or pawn promoted in secret. "I don't understand," An honest admission. "Send me to do and I will do." Because he knows. And so does Volga, how their suffering oppresses him. And it's true, SHIELD…..they've tried, but what have they done? Without rehabilitation or stability or cure, what can they do but put them down?

Why, why indeed. Those lofty questions are met with silence. Viktor raises his hands to the sky for a power not named god to answer.

"I told you," explains the master of options so very patiently, "not everyone here is a scientist, seeing only one route to an end. I thought you of all our agents, defiant and headstrong, might appreciate this singular opportunity. You may propose your ideas. Or you may stand up and say no. In which case, let us forget this ever happened. For you will. I believe Comrade Zola has the protocols prepared and ready to go. Put that nasty issue behind you and go to your promised rest. The darkness drops again and now you know that twenty centuries of stony sleep until vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle." He can quote Yeats, for certain.

He's leapt into the Devil's arms before. This may be a lesser demon, but anything is better than Zola's tender mercies. "I accept," he says, simply. "I won't see them suffer. I'll bring them back. None of them have to die." And Steve…. Steve is the naive one.

Volga raises his fingers, touching them lazily to his brow. A salute, nearly. "Very good. The matter will be simple, then. Reclaim the children. Return them expediently to us. You may not use any agent or asset known to you. Unwise to expose the packages to unwanted attention, especially as they are far too valuable for just anyone to take into hand. A failure to deliver would be catastrophic to them, to you, and this facility."

"On either side?" he asks, quietly. He looks sick, still. He gets to keep his memories, but at such a price. Betrayal of someone dear. Peggy and Steve? "What tools can I use?"

Having been quiet so long, Viktor speaks up. He clears his throat twice before his response catches, and the rusted flakes of disuse fade away. "The assets do not recognize their deterioration. The onset is long and the symptoms progressive. A conversation on this front may be unproductive." Or hopeless, that need not be said, for those already brutalized into laconic and monosyllabic answers.

Volga rises out of his seat, the first time he's substantially moved in quite some time, and he executes the move as though he just threw himself down. "They can receive help only in the country. We may give aid inside our borders to bring them to safety. The train was secure, but now only inside the USSR. But they remain in America. Our efforts to retrieve them have been laborious." And so the labours of nine months produce great fruits of labour, and oh, how true the prophetic statement was. "You invite great risk by co-opting agents in Poland, Bulgaria or East Germany. Time is of the essence."

His suit falls just so, and reveals him to be a tall man, not quite as lofty as Steve Rogers, but close enough to be imposing. "As far as the Soviet Union is concerned, your operation ended. What happens to the children when they deliver you for processing? Or you come under a western flag to parlay? Like as not a Stasi guard will solve the matter by putting a bullet into their heads. Department X can show itself only so far before risking them. Our students are not common knowledge, and they would never declare themselves. They are trained too well to achieve the objectives of the mission." What band of terrible secrecy binds them all, youth to adult, and even now as Bucky makes a deal for all seven. Eight? Nine? "The Americans have resisted doing the right thing so far. Do you think those people you infiltrated have treated their hostages well? They robbed the students' patrimony in every conceivable way." He levels that dark, matte gaze, unblinking. "They have no recourse from destruction. We cannot go to them without betraying the youngest. Yes, I know you met Stefaniya. You have your choices, to take no responsibility or to shoulder the burden."

"And do remember," Viktor says, "you have been tainted. A failure to return at all, without cryostasis, could put your own health at risk."

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