The asset waits for extraction beneath the eaves of concrete building in Russia. Half-frozen snowmelt is slippery beneath its feet. The wind howls around the other wall as the temperature drops and sunlight flees, but here, the asset is sheltered.
There is a bird beside it.
The bird is pressing itself into a crumbling portion of the concrete wall, as if that will protect it from the elements. One wing hangs uselessly; it is already shivering.
Against its better judgement, the asset peers closer.
Swift, the voice that appears at the back of the asset’s mind when it has been too long between wipes whispers. It’s a swift.
The asset strips the glove off its flesh hand and reaches out to touch the swift. The feathers are soft beneath its fingertips.
The swift looks up at the asset. Its eyes are large and dark, and its beak opens and closes repeatedly. It looks scared. Nervous. It’s aware it is going to die. The asset recalls the woman it had killed approximately an hour previous. She had looked like that too.
Feathers shift over the asset’s fingers as it picks up the swift, and the swift squeaks in protest, a weak, high-pitched noise. It is deceptively tiny, thin and fragile. The asset closes its hand around the swift, brings it up closer to its body, closer to its face. The bird is not a threat to the asset.
The asset can feel the swift’s heart beating inside its tiny ribcage, can feel its chest rising and falling inside its hand.
There’s a flash of memory, of warm skin beneath trailing fingertips, beneath two hands of flesh and blood, tracing the protruding outlines of ribs, feeling the rattling rise and fall of weak lungs, the desperate thump of a heartbeat.
Stevie, the voice whispers.
And the asset is battered, overwhelmed with images, voices, memories.
“It’s a swift.” Steve says. His voice is sure and confident. “Chimney Swift, I think.”
(It makes Bucky want to kiss him – but then, what doesn’t?)
“How do you know?”
“My Ma told me about them. They spend most of their lives in the air, Buck, did you know that? They can sleep while they’re flying, and they fly such long distances – imagine it, imagine being able to stay up there in the clouds all day long…”
Bucky glances down at the tiny bird clutched gently in Steve’s bony hands. He reaches out and strokes a finger along its soft back, and then curls his own hands around Steve’s. He can feel it breathing, weak but alive, and when he crooks a finger in between Steve’s to touch the bird’s chest, he can feel its heart beating a mile a minute.
“Stevie, I’m not sure you can – its wing is broken. It might be better to…”
“No!” Steve says, and pulls the bird away from Bucky, out of his hands, and close against Steve’s chest. “No. I’m going to take care of her. She’ll fly again. I’ll make sure of it.”
“Okay, okay –” Bucky murmurs, clasping Steve’s shoulder and dropping a quick kiss into his hair. He knows better than to argue when Steve gets this passionate about something, especially if it is, for once, unlikely to kill him. “I’ll ask Mrs Damiano tomorrow if she knows what to do to heal a broken wing – but for tonight, I have a bandage or two we can wrap around her.”
“Thank you, Buck.” Steve says softly, and rests his head against Bucky’s chest. The swift sits between them, staring upwards. “Thank you.”
Steve is laid out beneath Bucky, all skin and bones and wide, unfocused eyes.
He’s beautiful, Bucky thinks. So damn beautiful that sometimes it makes his heart hurt.
“I’m gonna make you feel so good, Stevie. So good.”
“I know you will, Buck, I know –”
His ribs protrude enough that Bucky could count them, if he wanted, if it didn’t make him want to give up all his own meals so Steve could live forever.
Steve’s chest rises and falls and his heart thumps and Bucky can feel it, can feel it all, clutched in his hands like that goddamn swift sitting across the room in a shoebox with its wing splinted.
“They’re so beautiful.” Steve says.
The two of them are up on the tenement roof, sitting close enough that their arms brush, but not too close that they’d get shoved off the edge if someone came up here and saw them. Bucky is flicking cigarette embers onto the street below. The swift sits in its shoebox on Steve’s other side.
Above them, in the evening sky, a flock of swifts twist and turn, weaving patterns through the city. They’re a dark bundle of movement, of noise.
The swift in the shoebox trills desperately back.
Bucky starts noticing birds everywhere. Perched on their fire escape, wedged under a bridge, circling the ship he’s helping unload down at the docks.
He notices them, and he thinks of Steve.
He thinks of Steve, beautiful and wild and free, finally free from all that’s weighing him down. Flying with outstretched wings on an updraft, up, up and away.
He thinks of Steve leaving him for a better place.
Bucky thinks of Steve flying away, and it’s simultaneously the most beautiful and the most terrifying thing he can imagine.
“Are you sure she’s ready?” Bucky asks. He’ll be the last to admit that he’d become fond of the bird – but he has, he really has.
“Yeah.” Steve says. His confidence is contagious. “I almost couldn’t catch her last time she got out of the box. I had to close the windows and wait until she’d exhausted herself to throw a cloth over her and get her back in.”
“Okay.” Bucky murmurs, and smiles at Steve. Steve smiles back, his eyes bright and alive in his thin face.
They’re back on the rooftop, holding the covered-over shoebox between them. The swift patters around inside, tiny feet tip-tapping on the dirty cardboard, like she knows something’s happening.
Steve opens the box.
“Hey, little dame.” He says, and runs a thin finger down her soft back one last time. “You’re free now.”
The asset comes to consciousness curled on the icy ground. Its head hurts, a splitting headache behind the eyes, something it does not usually notice. Is not allowed to notice.
The asset needs to be wiped. The asset will be wiped.
Its flesh hand is still clutching the swift, who looks up at it, eyes wide and dark and afraid. The swift’s wing dangles uselessly. Its heartbeat is faint and irregular, its chest heaves erratically.
It is no longer shivering.
The asset snaps the swift’s neck.