1965-03-03 - Project Ursa: Mizar
Summary: Bucky and Steve pick up an asset in Russia, and hear warnings about the lay of the land.
Related: Project Ursa
Theme Song: None
steve-rogers bucky rogue black-widow 

0245 hours. Krasnokutskaya Village. Rostov Oblast.

Travel by the winter night in the USSR is always a risky thing, even bearing the technological advantage of a plow, of all vehicles, capable of skimming along the rutted roads and drifts like a sleigh of yore. They lack horses and bells, but the steady purr of the engine fills the air. Occasional stops to steal petrol is an unfortunate truth. Most stations aren't open after a given hour, and frankly, anyone showing up to ask will more than likely bring down the authorities.

The M-4 — the Don Road — provides the main avenue of access. However Steve Rogers found his way back down to Bucky Barnes, it's just like old times, running through flat, interminably dull territory for a rendezvous. Sadly the date is no better than '42. SHIELD's agent names a forgettable flyspeck village in a string of such things on the way to Volgograd. Their route traces that of their old enemies through the Russian heartland, echoes of the 6th Army Division and the panzer tanks still directly seen. A string of towns follow a smaller, less reliable route. Once or twice they'll see a burnt-out shell. Away from the M-4, regular gas stations are few. So are human souls.

But a bus supposedly travels this way a few times a day, and once they reach Bokovskaya, they're recommended to get off at the bus station — never in a million years does the contact assume they're riding a magitech snowplow through the hinterlands — and hike it a good two hours south. On the plow? The fourteen kilometers takes about half an hour.

Not a speed demon or a comfortable ride, this thing. But….worth it. Buck's muffled up in stolen greatcoat and gear, the hair beneath his woolen cap now a brutally short crop, long locks sacrificed for the sake of disguise.

A silent ride, though Buck points out the rusting hull of a panzer collapsed at the edge of the road like the shell of some enormous crustacean left as seawrack. He hides the plow as best he can in a stand of trees before they really reach the town, and leads the rest of the way on foot, valenki in their galoshes leaving soft prints in the snow.

Compared to its neighbouring hamlets, the stanitsa is somewhat impressive. Its neat orderly grid is laid out in a relative rectangle, focused upon the two primary businesses of interest and a post office. No activity spins around the little grocery store proudly displaying the hammer and sickle flag outside, nor around the little factory full of sewing machines that speaks to the principal industry in the village. Unimpressive little one-storey houses cluster under barren trees, each appoointed their lot. Steam and smoke spiral out of chimneys into the frosty air.

Why would they be sent here to this forgettable place where two outsiders will invariably stand out so badly? It could have something to do with a small, sloop of a building that has a full hall full of fabric, a warehouse attached in the back to the sewing factory. Somewhere full of boxes and bolts, easy to hide.

They were literally sent to a bolthole.

It's the only possible place. He's stomping along in the snow, breath in a cloud, arm in a sling again. Not that the coat and shirt beneath don't cover it, but….to all appearances, a wounded soldier trying to meet up with kin, perhaps. It's around to the backdoorof the little warehouse, raps softly on the door.

The door isn't much, a heavier lock to keep out would be traveling bandits. Cossack territory, this, despite the reorganization of the CCEP after the Revolution. Never mess with native Cossacks, who make up a surprising majority yet. Such a figure swaddled in a heavy coat and sweater peers out, heavy bags under his eyes indicative of age, a drinking issue, and lack of sleep. He smells vaguely of vodka and overripe yeast. A skilled eye might pick out white dust on his shoes, a smudge on the pants. Baker? They'd have reason to be awake at this hour.

«You taking the order?» He glances around, and then back at Bucky. «Expected the truck would be bigger.» They all say that, don't they?

«Yeah, I'm the one scheduled to deliver it,» Buck agrees, deadpan. The latter makes his lip curl. «Everyone says that. We do the best we can to serve the Motherland, but you can only do so much with what you're given.»

«Champion of the Motherland taking bread. Things come full circle.» The man shuffles aside, leaving barely enough room to slide through the open door. He shoves it into the jamb, resetting the lock. Wherever Steve is, in a ditch or huddled in a barrel along with apples and a sword, he doesn't question. After a few moments he fumbles with a torch and flicks it on, revealing a number of racks filled by roughspun cottons and broadcloth, the occasional patterned blue or yellow bolt awash in the buttery light. «This way.» A flick indicates the sinuous aisles squeezed in.

«I get few details from down the line. What are you wanting, eh? Info about the route ahead, place to hide?»

«What is this Champion business?» he asks. Not comfortable, but at least warm and out of the cold. «I've seen the book, I've heard the name, but….what is the Champion supposed to do? I thought we'd had done with prophecy once we drowned that rat Rasputin.» Winter's got his own opinions, after all. «Whatever help you can give. Safe places, info, food, supplies. We're facing Volga himself, at the very least.»

The baker pushes aside a leaning stack of cardboard tubes stored in a deep barrel, repurposed from one machine or another. «Story, like anything. Aren't we all superstitious? We are a people of stories. No stories, we are stripped out of our hearts.» He taps the body of the old torch, trying to milk more power out of the batteries. A blank look settles for what Bucky has to convey. «Clothes are no problem here. Food, enough to get you on your way. You want to get to Stalin… Volgograd?» Old habits die hard. «Better to hole up closer there than here. I know a few abandoned buildings for a night or two. Nothing very good long-term. The ice breaks up early this year, it's causing trouble with the farmers. They're talking about sending in engineers, getting a whole division moving. Twentieth Guards are circled by the water, they're not happy.»

«The old name makes sense to me,» Buck says, comfortably. Still that tinge of Vladivostok to his speech - whomever really trained him was a native. «But what's the story?» he persists. «And we can make it. Petrol - we've got a vehicle, if not a fast one. Snowplow, of all things.» A wry baring of molars, a wolfish little smile. «Army there, eh?»

«They're based near Prudboy.» The baker thumbs through a few bolts and pushes them aside, coming up with boxes. One hisses when pulled out, lid dislodged to reveal run of the mill clothing. Not so much a problem for Bucky, tricky for Steve. «With the trouble on the Don, they are so close they will have to deal with it. You can expect they'll be out, pissed as ever having to go outside instead of stay in and clean their guns.» Not much of a fond opinion, but he's a civilian. «I don't have much more for you except to say be careful. Don't go off the road if you can help it. With the flooding, the traffic is not great, but you will not… a plow?» Yes, he caught up. «I don't want to know. You'll have the traffic. You won't end up dead under broken ice if you stay on the road.»

An upnod from the Soldier, calm enough. He holds them up, grins. Poor Steve. «Thank you,» he says, softly. «And I've learned my lesson about trying cross country. General Winter hasn't surrendered yet, river thaw or no. We'll keep an eye out for the Army. No papers?»

A ruffle around and he brings out a pair of booklets. «This buys you food, gear. It goes as far as Volgograd, no trouble. You try in Moscow, I'm not responsible for you ending up in the basement of a prison.» The baker rubs his face. «ID? I'm not going to have anything like that here. You get to Kalach-na-Donu.» Kalach on the Don. Right on the floodzone. If it's not unfamiliar as a name, that'd be because of its position as a massive battle in the war. Then again, every town here has such a sorry history. «There, you go to the bakery. Someone will meet you there. Don't ask me who, they don't tell me. He's a capable person, I know that much. You show up and tell them you have the midday delivery. I give you a few bags, it should be good. They want starters for the buns, I have them out back.»

«All right. Thank you again,» he says, lapsing back into that usual stoicism. Russians think those who smile too much are fools, after all. He lefts the clothes, the bags indicated as an excuse to to visit the bakery. More food - the hunger's implacable. Buck's dressed up like a soldier on leave. He's even sacrificed the long hair for a proper short clip, hidden under a woolen hat, for now. A murmured farewell, and he's back out into the cold to go to the bakery.

0735 hours. Kalach-na-Donu town. Volgograd Oblast.

Four bloody hours of bouncing up and down over the Russian steppe through old Cossack territory might be better on horseback rather than astride a plow, no matter that the plow outperforms Stark technology in such winterised fields. By little light at all, save the headlight of said vehicle, Bucky has to negotiate one town from another without aid of a river, a road, or more than snowbanks. Together with Steve, he switchbacks a few times to account for ending up in a cow pasture or a stubble-razed field. A near disaster they avert at Alekseyevskiy when someone shoots at them, and from there it's a miserable run for the Volgograd Oblast border. There waits the E-40, a somewhat visible road with a string of intermittent traffic as dawn slowly creeps closer. The so-called bus stop printed on a map somewhere is a joke: it's a traffic sign, little else. The route cuts through dormant fields with numbing monotony. Only when they start seeing piled up ice flows and collapsed houses can they be sure they're on the right route to the Don River, a huge, serpentine flow of muddied water and ice in high flow that almost, almost undercuts the bridge over the main span. Flooding. Flooding that sets the tone as they arrive in the cold twilight upon a town evacuated partly from the overflowing banks.

Oktyabr'skaya Ulitsa is the main drag through town and along that front, sandbags and futile efforts to hold back the waters are in evidence. The bakery for a town this big is a bit tricky to find, but seek information or meander around, and that can be found behind a bank, adjacent to a row of warehouses.

He does exactly that. The flooding's enough to make him nervous - is there anywhere Volga's influence does not extend to? Probably not. Again, the plow's pulled off and set aside somewhere quiet, and he's stumping through the snow to the bakery. Sling tucked away for now, face muffled up against the cold. A knock at its back door, since he's a deliveryman.

The door in the back opens at the knock, but inside is not someone that looks like a baker. In fact, it looks more like the Black Widow, decked out in her white uniform which blends so perfectly with the snow. Winter Soldier would be quite familiar with it, Bucky as well, if he shares those memories. Pretty hard to guess what he remembers or not on any given day. «I was waiting on a delivery, a little late, but I'll take it,» she greets in Russian, motioning for them to come on as they figure out the next step.

|ROLL| Bucky +rolls 1d10 for: 6

It still is. And while he has the relevant memories, the sheer oddity of finding her *here* has Bucky's jaw dropping for a moment. Then he collects himself, and says, «Well, I'm here for the mid-day delivery…» Trying not to gawk at her like an owlet waiting to be fed. Then he's slipping in, to get off the street, beckoning Steve to follow.

People come and go even at this early hour. Factories uphill call to their workers, and someone needs to be there to organize everyone on the first shift. Unhappy civic employees dubiously regard the river, organizing sandbagging with the assistance of a few sleepy police officers and a metric pile of labourers pressganged into waking up early and serving the USSR. A functionary notable for his greatcoat and peaked hat stands on a crate, giving directions on high, all this a half-kilometer away from the bakery. Within sight of the bakery they can watch activity, the trucks snaking up to the highway, redirected to avoid being caught in the snowy maelstrom of the Don where it negotiates a wide curve. The overspill races into the Volga-Don canal hewing the narrowest point between the two mighty rivers, and that current is currently dragging along a freighter.

«Well, if you delay further, you'd be late, as of now you're just in time…» Widow adds, holding the door for Bucky and Steve, and quickly closing it behind, turning to face them, «there's heavy presence for the disaster with the river, we need to avoid being noticed, or it'd be questionable why we do not offer help…» it's only as an after thought that she looks at Steve, and then back at Bucky, «he does speak Russian, right?»

«He does,» Buck affirms. «Perfectly. Though he sounds like a yokel from Archangel.» Utterly deadpan, though his eyes are bright. «Didn't expect to see you here, Widow.» Using her codename - this is his student? The femme fatale he's described to Steve before as the most deadly result of all his efforts. «And you're right. Any suggestions on how we slip through?»

Outside, the town wakes from its uneasy rest. A loud truck sputters down the road, backfiring muffler exploding noise off the surrounding buildings. Might be enough to make them flinch. Traffic down the Volga-Don Canal continues how it can through a series of locks controlling the water flow. The freighter passes by in a block of steel.

Natasha fails to stiffle a chuckle at that one, nodding at Bucky's reply, while winking playfully at Steve. «Peggy asked me to help, I'll never say no to her…» odd, last Bucky saw Natasha she was in a cell at the Triskelion. She also wasn't that big on Peggy Carter. If anything she was livid by what happened. Now she's all of a sudden spoken of with the same reverence Natasha mentions the late Alexei. Bucky might have to look into this one when he gets back, that is if he's not reading it as Natasha simply having fun with him. She does do that on occasions

She takes a moment to let Steve catch up, before stating the obvious, «we cannot go by Don river, we'll have to go through road or snow,» she motions at several carryout boxes, «if anyone asks, we make delivery from bakery, nobody would question some Vatrushkas for Major Vasilevskiy, yes?» It's a laughable cover, but surprisingly, sometime the simple thing get most overlooked. It's just that most don't dare to try, and he who dares, just might win.

The frivolity of it makes him laugh, soundlessly, eyes going to blue crescents in amusemement. «Two big soldiers to guard a baker's delivery girl?» he asks. Has she ever seen him smile like that, let alone laugh? Winter was never one for humor, beyond a chill smirk. «Could work. Gotta vehicle, maybe a delivery truck?» He jerks a thumb at Steve. «We gotta be careful here, or the big guy will eat 'em all first.»

All kinds of vehicles around, but they are largely on the highway behind town or commandeered to transport labourers, sandbags, and occasionally annoyed schoolchildren. Their high school is within the flood zone, so guess who gets to work for the good of the oblast? Surprise! The bakery doesn't seem to have its own truck parked anywhere. They do have the mighty plow.

Natasha looks pleased enough that Bucky can appreciate the simple stupidity of her plan. He also happens to be a man with plenty of field experience, enough to know that what she offered isn't just for cartoons. The simplest, least elaborate things, draw the least suspicion afterall. «Precisely, tough times like these, with all the trouble with rivers…law enforcement is busy helping the people, not enough are free to keep innocent bakery delivery girls from harm. Nice soldiers, want to make Major happy, make sure his Vatrushkas get there unharmed, yes?»

Moving further along, she seems to have prepared as well, as the closet with all the bakers aprons, has a coat for her, bearing the bakery logo, and a couple of soviet army uniforms, for Bucky and Steve, should they accept her suggested plan.

Glowering at Steve, all playfulness seems to sap from her in a nano-second, "no touching the pastry, yes?" She says it in English to be sure Steve understands, before looking aside at Bucky, she is not used to Winter Soldier laughing or smiling. But she's not sure what to make of what she found out about the Winter Soldier and Bucky Barnes, she'll have to consider it once back in the States. For now, the operation goes on. «I'll get the goods ready to move, go procure vehicle after you change clothes.»

He offers a salute, and vanishes to do just that. When he re-emerges, he notes, «We can pretend you're my best girl, and tthis big lug is my cousin, Stefan.» The closer to the truth you are, the easier to maintain the lie, right?

Old skills have ot deserted them, and Ural are direct descendants of German scoutbikes from the War. So he's able to hotwire one in just a few deft motions, and pulls up by the bakery, motor already running. A sidecar for the Widow, and a pillion seat for Steve. Unless the Captain decides to insist upon driving. That's how it used to be in the war, after all.

Widow is true to reputation, by the time she comes out, the coats to fend the cold and enough bakery apparel cover her tactical garb underneath. Mannerism is one of the keys of any disguise, and she hurries along getting the boxes from the bakery into the sidecar, before slipping in without ever considering she had a shot of riding anywhere else. «I hear ruffians were spotted along the route, I'm so grateful you could accompany me!» She's grateful audibly enough so any who might be eavesdropping about would have no doubt what is happening, just a bakery girl on delivery, who lucked into protectors for her route.

Buck's hardly identifiable as himself - he's found goggles for himself and for Steve. «Nothing but the best for my girl,» he replies, with real affection in his tone. The rare case where both fragments of his personality are aligned, Widow being that most unlikely of creatures, a woman the Winter Soldier loves. «We'll be quick, and have you back out of the cold before you know it.»

Ruffians, on the road. A road clotted by all sorts of traffic up there carries the general weight of a rising tide of peasants and labourers. In the dead of the winter morning, spies and one American hero stand out, but how much? Only time will tell. The monochrome landscape in all its flat monotony, grey vehicles, dirty snow, and the omnipresent scent of the disrupted waterways serenade them out of Kalach-na-Donu.

They make it no more than five miles before the first stumbling block arises at the very mouth of the mighty Volga-Don Canal: barricades strung over the road, a flurry of stalled traffic, and armed soldiers lounging above the surging flow.

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