"That, too," he said, following her as she wandered further into the garden. He reached out to tap his metal fingers against a chunk of ice, as gently as he could, frowning as it splintered like glass beneath his touch. How could he ever hope to touch a woman with a hand that had been made to kill? "You like it here," he observed, realizing it was the quiet that she liked about the place more than anything else.
She nodded, turning at the tinkle of ice breaking. "Here." Taking that metal hand in hers, she turned it palm up, and gently released her power. Tendrils of crimson lifted water from the fountain, shaping it even as it froze in the cold air, until a delicate rose lay in his metal palm, colored only by the metallic glint beneath it. She smiled up at him, her eyes sparkling in the strangely silver-touched light. "Ice is brittle. Diamond is not."
He watched, somewhat in awe of her abilities, which could be used for far more than a weapon. "I am not sure what you mean," he said, gazing down at the delicate rose she had placed in the palm of his metal hand, as fragile as glass. All he'd have to do is close his fingers around it to crush and destroy it.
"On the outside, they look the same," she tried to explain, catching a drop of water from the fountain to fashion it into what looked like a perfect diamond, its clarity stunning as the light reflected off those many faceted surfaces. "But ice ... it melts, it transforms, it changes its very being to suit the world around it. Diamond is constant, unchanging, and valued for that very reason. Is one more precious than the other? I do not know. But I know neither would be afraid of you. Ice clings to you, that part of you that you hate; it lingers on your hand, where it would melt and escape in another's grasp. And diamond would not be afraid of your strength, able to withstand the mistakes that might be made in frustration or pain."
"That's very ... deep, Alyona," Nic replied, that frown still in place, but more thoughtful than troubled. He handed her back the rose, afraid he might crush it if he held it too long. What was it she was trying to tell him, exactly? That she wasn't afraid of him, no matter how fragile she was? "I hate it ... what they did to me. I hate this," he said, lifting his arm to indicate the object of his hatred. "Natasha said Doctor Rogers might know how to replace it, but I will never be whole."
Crimson wrapped about the rose, gently transporting it to lie on the surface of the steaming fountain, to melt away in the new warmth. Then she turned, stroking her gloved fingers over his metallic palm. "This ... this is not a measure of the man you are," she reminded him softly. "It is a scar of the horrors you have suffered, yes, but it does not define you. What is in here ..." Her hand rose to touch lightly over his heart. "That is where you can be found. Not in your fingertips, but in your heart. And they cannot take that from you."
She was wrong. They had ripped his heart from his chest when they had killed his Liliyana, but perhaps they had not broken him completely. Though Lili was gone, he yet lived, and when he looked into Alyona's eyes, what he saw wasn't fear or disgust at what he'd become, but hope. He lifted his good hand to trace the curve of her cheek, to feel the warmth of her skin, the softness of her hair. "You are so young," he said quietly, more to himself again than to her.
How strange it was, she wondered, that she had shown him his own self seen through her eyes, and yet he still did not understand that she didn't see him as broken or half a man. She saw the pain in his eyes, the anger that could be ignited in a moment, but it was not frightening. It haunted him, in the same way her own memories haunted her. And then there was that word again ... young. Her smile faded a little, her head shaking just a little, just enough to deny that truth without shaking his touch from her skin. "I am not a child."
"No, not a child," he agreed, cupping her cheek with a hand that was surprisingly gentle, considering what they had done to him, what they had made him. She was certainly young, but more woman than child, and ripe for the taking. The thought of that made him frown a little as he drew back his hand, afraid once again that she was too young, too innocent, too pure for one such as him. It wasn't the memory of his wife that troubled him so much as the fear that he might hurt her.
Lucky for him that she saw those thoughts flash through his mind, and understood that his retreat was no rejection of her. Her smile softened again as she wrapped her hand into his. "There is so much more to see," she told him. "But I wanted you to see this place. To hear it."
"To hear the quiet of this place," he said, understanding what it was she'd wanted to share with him. "Is there any way you can shield yourself from others' thoughts?" he asked, curiously, as the moment seemed to pass between them, though she had retaken his hand.
She shook her head. "Not that I know of," she admitted, falling into step beside him to explore the gardens together. "Once I have made that connection with someone's mind, they are always there. I can always hear them, like ... like a crowded room, you know? The sound of voices in my head but I can't understand them unless I concentrate on them."
"You hear everything I am thinking?" he asked, mortal fingers twined with hers as they roamed the gardens. It seemed a strange thing to be doing - surreal almost - after the nightmare of the last fifty or so years.
"Only if I focus my mind on yours," she assured him. "When you have my attention. I am trying very hard not to see everything when I am talking to people. Steve did not like it, and ... some things are hard to forget. I still remember a time when doing anything that was not wanted would bring me pain. So now I know that seeing a mind when the person is talking to me is not welcome, I am trying not to do it. I am learning to lie to make people feel less ... afraid of me."
"I'm not afraid of you, Alyona," he assured her. That was not the problem at all. He was only afraid of what he might do to her, if he let her get too close, of how he might hurt her, without meaning to.
"You are, a little," she told him. "But not in the way that most people are. I like that." Her fingers squeezed his as she glanced at him, her smile assuring him that she did understand the low lying fear that colored his mind, even if she was trying not to look too deeply into it. "I like spending time with you. Despite everything, I feel calm with you."
Not as calm as she felt when she was with Captain Rogers, he reckoned, though he knew theirs was a different relationship. He wasn't even sure what kind of relationship was blossoming between the two of them. Was it friendship or something more? Perhaps only time would tell. "I feel calm when I am with you, too. Peaceful," he agreed, but then it had only been a few days.
It was strange to think that only a few miles away loomed the busy metropolis that was New York City. Out here, it was quiet, peaceful, the greenery around them obscured by the softly falling snow. It was a picture-book world, a place where dreams and fantasies might take flight, appealing to the child in Alyona as they walked along.
"Oh!" Her face lit up suddenly, and she pointed ahead, to where a long, narrow, stone-clad pool stood, frozen solid in the chill. Abandoning his hand, she ran to it and, quite deliberately, jumped straight onto its surface, cackling with glee as she slid over the smooth ice, arms flailing to keep her balance.