1965-03-11 - Project Ursa: Merak
Summary: It's only right death stalks the shadows of the Winter Soldier and the Black Widow. Their comeuppance comes due, and not even Captain America gets off scot-free in the red court. Within reach of the Volga, they'll have to endure one final trial if they're to ever save their kin. And to do that, they have to survive their judge, jury, and executioner. He's got a bone to pick. PART ONE!
Related: Project Ursa
Theme Song: None
rogue steve-rogers bucky black-widow omega-red 

1309 hours. Parkhomenko. Volgograd Oblast.

A husk of a tank waits at Parkhomenko, the tiny blip in the hinterlands of Mother Russia. Two men swept into the raging Bereslavskoye Reservoir join the plume of water and ice bored through wooded banks. The Volga-Don Canal narrows from the lake into a river lock, dotted by islands as the natural harbours for tiny unplanned hamlets. Were the landscape other than dead flat, rapids would be a real danger. For now, they're only risking being thrown between rocks and submerged trees brought down by the high waters.

Ahead of them, the narrow neck and locks marking the mouth of the larger Varvarskoye Basin. Where normally a sinuous creek fills out wetlands held back by a large cement wall decorated by Soviet brutalist pillars, the river simply surges right over and threatens to swamp Gornyy. Lined up on the eastern bank are snowmobiles and likely a good number of soldiers, surely a few snipers in there. Others are running down the A-153 on snowmobiles, while a prop plane flies circles over the snowy landscape normally a patchwork of golden fields.

Their targets? Drowned rats. Not quite like shooting fish in a barrel. Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes have their work cut out for them, a twelve kilometer route to Nariman village, the site of perhaps one of the bloodiest battles in all the Eastern Front. Any boats they might want are likely tied up for the season on the shore, but there are a few reedy patches in the snow and roads vanishing into the murky waters, possibly indicating some kind of boat launch.

How many hundreds of Russians have died already, between Rossovich and the rising waters - Volga cares less for his children than Bucky for his, it seems. Or is less precise. There's a kind of flattery in a whole division turned out to catch them, a pair of stags driven before a pack of hounds ten thousand strong. And to what - Volga has to have his girl, his kinsmen, if they aren't bodies floating beneath the wreckage of the dacha.

The water, at least, is concealment of tracks for now. And the prospect of a boat small enough to not be obvious, towards the shore opposite, perhaps. Or concealment on something like land. Buck's paddling that way, weakly. COld is helping with the bleeding - it's all terribly reminiscent of his very first death, in the cold waters of the North Atlantic.

Right beside him, faithful friend as ever, Steve Rogers swims. His attention is torn between keeping himself afloat and making certain that Bucky doesn't go beneath the water for more than a second at most, if strength flags. It's a horrid and cold cycle, skips in heart-beat and rises in blood pressure followed by a smoothing and jumped up yet again by adrenaline's prod.

"Almost there," he gasps, sacrificing his breathing cycle for more encouragement.

How many have died in service for the Motherland? The scorched earth policies adopted by the Tsars and their successors have always demanded heavy costs in lives. Let none think themselves above the needs of the country. Proof of that sticks out in places, the rusty hulks of old war materiel everywhere one looks. A turret presses through a tangle of trees, aimed over the turbid waters blown by a fell breeze promising worse. Another abandoned truck gone worn and dark reveals the skeletal lines of its windscreen and roof from the embankment, coated in snow. Every sinuous bend and turn reveals a new fresh take on the violent history they cover, one aching league at a time.

The sun hangs at its high point, which is not so far above the horizon at this latitude, barely offering any comfort in the matte gunmetal sky. Nearer at hand, a few lights here and there indicate sparks of occupation, people nearby, though they're often headlights on a truck.

The boat that Bucky spotted isn't a terrible one, far from the flat rowboats that might be river-worthy on a perfectly calm summer day. The metal sides are worn and weathered, the interior scummed by a film of rusty liquid under ice. Stowed away in the undergrowth, the rotten tarp covering it has held up somewhat better. Oar inside; there's no sign of the motor functioning, the outboard more skeletal wreckage of bone-white and pale grey.

They're going to have to paddle this damn thing down the Volga like the world's least jolly voyageurs. But it'll be a rest, and something to hold them that isn't the water itself. Buck's trying to scramble into it like someone's pet elephant seal demanding cuddles. Here's hoping dropping a few hundred pounds of super soldier into it won't just drop the bottom out of it.

Bereslavka. Volgograd Oblast.
Cold visage of death, marble and gold and blood, Arkady weaves around the building where perches the other spectre of endings. Natasha represents a more personal touch than his, whereas he's the axe to her scalpel. Crunching through the snow, he circles in an erratic perimeter. Only the steam of his breath indicates an actual beating heart under there, though his glowing crimson eyes check her position like clockwork. The more she speaks, the less his focused expression responds. Matte tentacles writhe off his shoulders, coiling once around his gloved hands, and feel along the sad little cinderblock hovel. One good lash would separate the wall from the foundation. All the while, he drinks her life, tearing piece by piece away.

There must be a response, an answer to all that's said. «They will die.» It's all he bothers with in a blunt, matter-of-fact tone. The livid eyes barely stray. «The Soviet Union prevails.» Another patter of ice falls away from the churning whiplash falling away, and he almost shrugs his shoulders against the harness enfolding his massive chest. At his height, he's almost of an eye with the gutter. Certainly within reach. And he continues to stalk.

He will walk that path until she lies cold on the snowy ceiling or gasps out fading breaths, an inevitability. They made him for his purpose, one he embraces with glee. If glee is ever possible in that twisted heart.

If Bucky's an affectionate and bloodied seal, what does that make Steve? World's biggest blue penguin, certainly not little and not at all Fae. Fingers crossed that the integrity of the hull continues to hold as yet another super-soldier body's worth of weight lands beside the brunet with a 'whuft' of lost air. He just lays there, not caring what soaks into the back of his hair, and pants, one arm flung up against the interior of the boat and the other cross his chest.

"At least there's an oar," Steve quips quietly.

Heavy weight landing in the bottom of the boat does indeed threaten to bobble it about, and it scrapes heavily upon the sandy hillock it was beached upon. A tangle of roots mires the back end, forcing a lot of tugging and pulling to try to pull it free. And why? Skeletal ribs and harms crack to the heady effort to tear the damn thing free, not nearly so difficult as holding a helicopter to a rooftop, but tricky in its own way. A bone pops into the air and tumbles into the brackish mire goring the boat's bottom. Neither super-soldier shall be free of that earthy muck sinking into their attire, black or blue or grey all adorned in rusty maroon. But at least there is the possibility of pushing themselves out into the water, and being swept through the lock.

Let them look like yet another piece of wreckage floating along in the floodwaters. Let Volga bring them along. "Let the current carry us for a bit," he murmurs, as he frankly drapes himself against Steve. Cold and wet again, the body working furiously to deal with that wound. Next thing you know, he'll be coughing up that bullet like a kitten producing a hairball.

There's no answer. It's not that Arkady believes her or not. It's more like Arkady doesn't care she's Red Room and will kill her along with everyone else in his path. Natasha can feel the chill digging deeper inside, life essence fleeting. Sure, Arkady will get reprimend for that. Sure, the Red Room will not lose their investment on her, they will retrieve her. But is it worth it? No, no it's not. «I am Chyornaya Vdova. We are both Red Room. Why do you have to be so stubborn Arkady…» she hisses as she forces herself to her feet, «I won't fail because of you…if you want it to be a competition, fine. Grigor and Lyudmila will hear of this,» she notes as she struggles to pace to the edge of the roof to jump on to the next one, before eventually giving herself a boost by giving herself a swing down the snow with a well placed Widow Line, landing with a rolling crash into the snow, as she starts to rush across the A153. For the time being she's rushing on foot, if only because she's reassessed the situation. Arkady isn't looking to show he did the Black Widow one better, he's looking to kill the Black Widow and then take revenge for her death. Will she has no surefire way to know that is his plan, she doesn't put it beyond Arkady.

Hunkered down as low as he can manage within the confines of that fragile metal boat, Steve pulls the oar in as soon as the current catches them again. His inner child would take glee in floating about like a toy in this water were it not for the cold. And the soldiers. And risk of painful death. And Russia in general.

He doesn't mind Bucky leaned up against him, hidden as they are in the bottom of the boat. Propriety takes second place when the brutal agony of staying alive is first order. "I know. We'll get through the lock and figure out where to go from there." He pitches his voice low, barely audible even to Bucky. Sound travels far on water.

As if the man who murdered three hundred souls for breakfast fears or cares about two distant figures in Moscow. They are no closer than the American president of the hour. Arkady Rossovich indulges in watching the woman flee, turning in her direction and coursing his way for the river at a far slower clip than a boat sent tumbling through the high water of the canal.

The rotting tarp and the bones wrapped around Bucky at least might give some protection from the elements, though not much. Heat is in short supply, as much as heating materials. Steve has a harder time trying to control the craft. The function of the lock is mechanized, controlled by craft going in and being lowered several inches to the next reservoir. Just one problem, the water is so high that they basically are going over the lock wall. A few inches capable of ripping out the hull of a boat protrude, and that means some skillful voyageur canoeing or they're being dumped out. Along the breakwater, at least two bored people patrol. Who's luck is with them?

Bucky's, perhaps. For once on this awful adventure. Trying his best to steer by poking the oar out, as if it were something snagged by the tarp. Here's hoping the Ivans on the bridge are bored enough to be left a little dull-witted by it.

Between Bucky's efforts with the oar and Steve leaning weight this way and that, the boat carooms through the narrow passage of the overflowing lock. They clear the flume of water roaring from its mouth and land once again on the reservoir's surface. Burying his face into his elbow, the Captain coughs up the brief splash of collected water that jumped when they made impact.

"I think that's it," he whispers to his friend. "We made it out onto the big water."

Once Natasha starts building up more space from Arkady, who is no doubt amused at her fleeting before him, she goes about looking for a more reliable means of transportation. Normally there wouldn't be much to expect to find, but thanks to Arkady simply killing everyone in his path, she eventually finds herself a set of skis along with poles to boot. Someone was going on a cross country tour, but not anymore, it's now Natasha who makes quick work of putting on the skis and zipping along at a much faster rate than running, as she skis along the the water. She may take longer to catch up to Bucky and Steve, seeing how the rushing water is much faster. At least she's gaining more distance from god damned Arkady. The guy has lost it.

The boaters end up spiralling around rather fretfully on the lake's surface, a leaf in a high tide. The Varvarskoye Basin forms a wide crescent moon around the steppelands, the A-153 flanking the southern side as several shallow creeks meet the river. Marshy conditions stretch well-inland as they contribute to the dangerous undertows and conditions, the patches of forest falling away into tilled land again.

At this rate, the boat is filling slowly with water and blood, pushed ever southwards. The oars are useful, but one problem: there's no bucket to bail with.

Natasha passes wrecked hulks and abandoned vehicles now and then, certainly none of them serviceable for her particular use except, perhaps, that cheerfully abandoned snowmobile. A soldier looks out from a perch on a power pole, set well back from the road.

They're going to have to get to land, before the thing sinks itself. Buck's trying feebly to steer it, but not getting far. "Something's not right. Those guys at the lock….they weren't 20th. Tankers but from another unit, one I thought was gone." He pauses to labor for breath, "We'll have to take to land again, soon. Or find another boat." Full of blood, indeed. He's tinted the wash an unholy pink.

"Here, let me," Steve murmurs as he takes the oar from Bucky. The more hale between the two of them, he begins dipping the broad end into the water as silently and deeply as he can manage. Little curls of water linger on the surface in the wake of its passing. He steers the boat towards what appears to be an unmanned section of the resevoir itself and after a bit of effort and repeated draws of the oar, the boat is moving along at a fairly brisk rate.

A snowmobile is certainly going to be faster than skiing all the way to Nariman, so when Natasha spots the vehicle, she does alters her course of skiing towards it. With any luck, it might even have fuel and save her some time. While not travelling directly with Steve and Bucky, she feels much more comfortable, Omega Red being psychoticly deranged aside, she is on home turf. If need be, she could commandeer herself a vehicle with little complaint. At least not to her face, assuming Arkady hadn't already killed everyone in the area. She approaches the snowmobile like she already owns it, and should no one appear out of anywhere to lay claim, she rather slowly proceeds to prepare to ride it along her way.

Speed rowing will make the yards pass by, though Steve isn't without his view of the unending oddity of power poles sticking out of the water, among other things. A glimpse now and then of occupation on the other side: that's no tractor, but a stationary truck of some size, clearly with something mounted on the back. Soot stains a curl of smoke leading into the sky, with no apparent building connected. A bonfire on the ground? Not likely — the structure feels more like a vehicle.

Their route southwards is torturous, all the same. Snowmobile or boat, neither functions well in the cold. Nariman isn't much to speak of, another lonely waystation set back from the canal by a flat, featureless run of snow that goes straight up to the brown waters. Between reedy patches and ice floes, the whole expanse may well be deadly for the casual pedestrian. There lies the safehouse in a tangle of ten thin lanes, spread between two choked sloughs that bite cold and deep. The first isn't much, a few meters of bridge occupied by a tank, turret pointed straight up the A-153. The south, well, that remains to be seen

The safehouse. Assuming it hasn't been blown and laid as a trap. But these strange uniforms….the apparent watchers. "Steve," Buck's voice is ragged, as they negotiate the sloughs towards that refuge. "These guys. We're ot in the 20th's reach anymore, not yet. But I'm seeing guys in German uniform…I think," he pauses, realizing how utterly insane this sounds, "I think he's raised the dead from the war."

Even as he's listening to Bucky's voice and trying to figure out precisely what he's talking about, Steve catches sight of something beneath the water's surface. Bodies. The vehicle must have been thrown by an explosion, or badly-driven, its driver either panicked or lifeless as it careened through the slough and into the lake proper, trapping its occupants. There's another turret, rusted through, pointing at them — this receives a leery, lingering look from the Captain. He paddles a bit more quickly, moving them out of line of sight of that pitiless black hole aimed their way. On the bank, tires sprout from the snow.

"Who's raised the dead, Buck?" He tries hard to keep his voice level, as if he were inquiring after which member of the manor hadn't taken out the trash this week.

Good thing for sturdy snowmobiles, because eventually Natasha makes it, just in time to see that all said and done, her trip was the more comfortable, compared to how Steve and Buck look after their prolonged dip in the wild waters pushing them onwards. "Hi boys," Natasha says with a grin, looking pretty good, comparably. Save for the shot shoulder. "You missed the angel of death back there, what did I miss over here?"

That's a shout, for sure, covering the distance for the men caught in their slowly flooding craft on the lake. That's cold water working its way in through small holes and imperfections in the vessel. It coagulates in a puddle rising by the minute, creeping slowly higher and deeper. All along the shore ice floes are piled up, hiding their dreadful contents, be those worn rubber wheels or treads, scorched scraps, or bits of soot-darkened canvas. One of those hidden turrets turns, shrieking metal, and the last gasp of a belched missile rattles the whole structure. Birds take flight in the desperate flapping of wings as the first shot slams into the bank not so far from the boat, nor the snowmobile at rest. Where the round hits earth and water, the snow flies up, exploding on impact in an orange fireball.

By the look in his eyes, Steve is entirely justified in using that voice on Bucky. There's that thousand yard stare, they've all seen it before, the pallid skin, lips nearly blue. More than half-dead, and possibly wholly out of his mind. To both of them, he says, simply, "Volga, this immortal thing who's both a hero of stories and some kind of personification of the river…..he's raised the dead from the Great War. Both sides. Look at the uniforms on those guys," A wave of his metal hand indicates some of the distant soldiers. "Look at them. Black jackets. Panzergrenadiers. Paulus's men, maybe." He just sounds mildly bewildered, like….why would someone even do that?

And then there's the tank, sending him diving to earth. "Clearly, they've seen *us*," he says, with a kind of distant sarcasm. No safehouse is actually safe.

Steve has that critical second to both acknowledge Bucky's explanation, outlandish as it might sound, and also to raise a hand at Natasha.

"Nothing y — " Of course he had to say it aloud. The rusted rotation raises the hairs on the back of his neck and both soldiers are diving for the ground as it explodes nearby, throwing clusters of frozen earth and melted slush in the wake of its impact. Once Steve's certain that all limbs are attached and his friend is, in fact, still alive, he scrambles to his feet, attempting to haul Bucky with him. "YOU DON'T THINK!" That's his immediate response to the sarcasm. Sassy Steve is sassy.


Natasha has heard of stories, she has learned of the history, and lived some of it. She's not sure if Bucky is crazy at all, for all she knows, everything either of them knows is wrong. But before she can really hear what Steve has to say on the matter, and decide how to react, there's the matter of a shot being fired, leading her to dive behind the snowmobile.

«So I come face to face with Omega Red, and now I get to fight zombie Nazis…I don't even have vodka on me.»

Needless to say, Black Widow isn't happy, «want me to sneak in and take'em one by one? If you distract them, I can take that spotter.»

The boat more than certainly fades away into the waters, dragged to the shallows by the churning current. And with that current goes their point of escape. Another KV-2 on the bridge swivels. This one is on the same side as the soldiers and the femme fatale, and nothing quite prevents its battered, long gun to stand against them. Expansion against the seals produces an odd, groaning seal, their lone warning. Echoes garbled down the long chamber speak to the worst kind of antiquity in action.

Time they don't have on their side. Whatever men are visible on either sides of the canal, they are within range of the three living, breathing enemies. Nariman is beyond the tank at the bridgehead, and even further past that, the Volga itself. Where papers and a prayer say a hidden city holds their secrets.

Every second has a terrible price, that of the boys from Prussia and those from Rostov Oblast and some Romanians, others Karelian, getting to their feet and closing in. So much for shambling. They walk straightbacked and grim, eyes red as the bloody dawn that broke so long, long ago.

«We're being driven,» Bucky says, wearily. «If they can't catch us…..all this for us?» HE shakes his head, like a dog trying to get water out of its ears. «Can that snowmobile carry all three of us?» By the bleakness of his voice, he doesn't believe it. They can't even surrender.

«He needs to be taken to shelter and to medical aid.» God, Steve gets to be like a broken record sometimes when stressed. He's still ready to jump to one side, dragging Bucky with him and damned if they land in a snowpile or what else. His Russian has a strong American tinge to it now, brought on by lack of attention. «Nat, get him onto the snowmobile and move. I'll catch up. Or cover me, whatever works.» Yep, that's the Captain deciding to take action against the shambling hoardes moving towards them, shielding both physicall and metaphorically.

«You as good as they say…?» Natasha asks Steve, because given a choice, she couldn't care less about Steve. But for who Bucky is or was, she will do what it takes to save him, so the plan of soldiering on with Bucky and let Steve play delay on the hordes of demons is perfectly fine with her. But she has to make sure how confident he is, as she works about strapping Bucky to the snowmobile, with rope from one of her pouches, usually meant to use to bind foes. «It'll be a rough ride,» she warns Bucky, looks back towards the various undead, and offers one last time, «I think you should join, heck, use my skies and hold on to the damned thing….better than nothing.» The skis she used before are attached at the side of the snowmobile, either way, she prepares to get the heck out of there as fast as she can, taking hold of the handles. «<We're leaving Captain…»

Green uniforms gone dull as dishwater, brown and smart stained to the hue of mud. It doesn't much matter where they are. The endless, burning hate of long years calls them, sings them to life where the awful staccato beat of war doesn't end. Not that any stamping thud in the distance speaks to an actual orchestral music of belligerence. It's there in the tramp of boots, the slip-sough of torn clothes and burnt skin. Combat-shocked veterans hungry for death descend step by step. The grotesque eruptions of violence have a surreal quality, filtered through ice-devils blown across the steppe and that perilously low amount of gasoline remaining to Nat. She has to know the amount wasn't much.

Beyond is a wraith-like figure leaving no physical traces on the world, poised atop a roof, a spectre among the ghosts of the past in his crepuscular world. The sight is nearly graceful, the long, thin needle-black profile aimed down the line. No angel of vengeance, who currently lies dusted in the white sugar rime of a beignet. Nor does he belong on a gold-foiled icon buried in the basement. Whatever brace he holds will last for hours, as need be, a dead man risen armed with a Dragunov.

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