THE GULF OF ADEN, SOMALIA
The squeal of an RPG whizzes past Steve's ear and sails harmlessly over the railings of the vessel, into the ocean below. Salt water rains down on him, but his goggles protect his eyes from the sting.
With any luck, the explosion will have killed the shark that has been following them all morning, lazily reminding the entire crew that the entire Gulf of Aden is Shark Fucking Central and that swimming, diving, or falling overboard when fighting pirates is a truly terrible idea. Sharks and fucking pirates. That’s what his life has come down to.
Between them and the heat, he's sweating buckets and mentally writing a strongly worded letter of resignation to Wanda, back in London.
There isn’t much he can do about the temperature, and if he has to pick between sharks and pirates, he’s going for Jaws every time. Sharks generally avoid humans unless they get a case of the munchies. Pirates didn't have that sensibility, and they tend to come armed with Kalashnikovs and anything else they can buy from the black market. The bad guys of the world are considerably better equipped than he ever was as a Marine, but private security comes with a lot of money, and a lot of money buys some very shiny equipment.
Like the actual fucking laser beam mounted on the brow of the boat floating on the horizon, considerably more impressive than a carved wooden mermaid and with the added benefit of sci-fi futurism when fired.
"Missed, you bastards!"
Beside him is Clint Barton. Former Ranger. Clint is blond-haired, and blue-eyed like Steve, but while Steve is tanned after a month and a half of living in North Africa, Clint is perpetually sunburnt. Steve tends to work alone, but when a job calls for more than one agent, Clint is often the person he gets paired with. He’s a wicked shot, a good laugh and a decent guy to have watching your back. Steve hasn’t had to talk himself out of feeding him to a shark, which is usually where he finds himself after prolonged contact with any one person.
He’s also as done with this job as Steve is. Their enemy has already shown a desire to literally blow them to hell, and since they are all occupying the same vessel, the urge to sink the fucking thing isn’t at the top of Steve's to-do list.
They’ve left their boat anchored and swam the distance between them, sneaking aboard with weapons stashed in waterproof pouches. Now, radio at the ready and the rest of the team set to move in on their call, Operation Save The Day is well underway.
Steve presses the butt of his rifle more firmly against the ball of his shoulder and falls into the comfort of its familiar weight. In his own head, the world around him is blissfully quiet. It lets him line up each shot and fire with hard earned accuracy and zero wastage. He uses four bullets; hit four targets.
On his left, Clint drops back and Steve sets up an offensive, pushing his position forward. It’s Clint’s job to provide cover, picking off anyone stupid enough to get in his line of sight, and dissuading any others from even trying it. As soon as he is in position, he gives Steve the signal, and the fight explodes into high speed.
There are three targets on deck. Another seven below. Steve’s done his homework and he knows these men. Unlike most of the pirates who patrol this stretch of the Aden, these guys aren’t locals from Somalia. No one is forcing their hands or exploiting their poverty. The opposite, actually. They are members of Hydra, hiding in plain sight and stirring up unrest in the area.
Steve’s encountered Hydra before, more times than he cares to think about. The international crime syndicate has its thumbs in a lot of pies. They’re evil, every last one of them, manipulating and exploiting situations around the world and turning a profit in the resulting chaos.
“You think he’ll show?” Clint asks, speaking over the radio comms. There’s no need to verify who Clint is referring to. They’ve already made a plan should the Winter Soldier turn up. So far, there's been no indication that Hydra’s most notorious assassin is anywhere close to Somalia, but that’s been known to mean shit in the past. Steve’s too professional not to consider the possibility, not when Hydra’s power structure is poised on the edge of chaos the way it is.
“Depends how desperate they are,” Steve responds. He has no preference either way. For the sake of the mission, they can do without the complication, but after getting his ass soundly kicked every time he’s encountered the Winter Soldier, Steve’s more than prepared to start balancing the scale.
Moving below deck, Steve sticks to the service routes, having carefully studied the plans before the mission was greenlit. There are only really three places his package can safely be stored. He moves in the direction of the most logical one.
A guy his size always struggles to take cover and remain stealthy in close quarters, but Steve knows his body and how to use it, melting into the background as two Hydra agents storm out of one of the aft storage units. Steve switches from his rifle to a Walther P99 sidearm. As the last agent rushes past him, Steve moves in for the kill, hooking one hand around the agent’s jaw and jerking him back, a human shield in case the first agent is faster than expected.
He’s not. Steve puts a silenced bullet in his skull from behind and he goes down without even knowing Steve is there.
The agent in his grip has just as little luck. All it takes is a hard jerk of Steve’s wrist and his neck is broken. He crumples silently, and Steve moves on to his next target.
Peering through the small viewing window in the door, he sees the two civilians he’s come to collect, both bound and on their knees. There’s only one Hydra agent left standing guard.
Touching his radio mic, Steve quietly reports back. Now that he has contact, the ship will move in to collect them. That leaves the remaining targets to dispose of while he waits.
"I have eyes on package," Steve says, “call in for collection.”
“Roger that,” Clint’s voice calls, sounding tinny and far away. That right there is their second biggest problem: below the guys with RPGs, and above the sharks.
Taking command of a vessel like this one is a little like invading a country, only with significantly less paperwork, but possibly more water. Added to all the implications of such a task is the fact that the hull of the vessel is made of fucking iron. Iron, which fucks their radio signals all to hell.
Steve already has invaded a country. Twice, actually. Once in Iraq, which had been sanctioned and rubber stamped, and once in Central America, which, while covert, had been more a combination of fuck ups from three separate governments. He’d gotten a medal for that one, pinned in place in a secret ceremony by a General who'd then quickly forbidden him from ever wearing it.
“Deck’s clear for delivery. Flush the last of the rodents out and I’ll clean up house.”
"Roger that." Steve acknowledges. "Going cold. See you in three."
The door makes a god almighty racket as Steve kicks it open. It’s enough to startle the agent inside and buy Steve the precious seconds he needs to move in and put a bullet in the guy’s head.
Checking his back, Steve edges the door closed and knees at the side of the two shivering hostages. Gently removing the hoods over their heads, he tries to look less like a soldier and more like someone who might be reassuring and safe. He never knows how well he manages, because without fail, the same thing always happens.
They burst into tears.
“I’ve got you,” he promises them. “My name is Steve, and you’re safe now.”
Once free from their bonds, they cling to each other, scared and unsteady as Steve guides them to their feet. “Stick close,” he orders, “and I’ll have you out of here in a couple of minutes.” He waits for an acknowledgement, knowing from past experience how uncertain trauma can be and how dangerous a recently liberated person can get when he fails to recognize friend from foe. These two simply nod, hanging on his every word and gesture. Steve smiles, then triggers the radio again. “We're comin' up! Package is in hand, condition stable."
They emerge up into daylight and Steve loses a precious second as his eyes readjust. The two hostages cry out, having been kept in the dark below deck for weeks.
Clint jogs over, a small device in one hand and his rifle high on his shoulder. “No more heat signatures from below,” he says, checking the device. “We’re all clear.”
Their client, the daughter of one of the men they have rescued, hired the company to rescue him and his co-worker after they were taken in the Gulf of Aden several weeks earlier. As the matter has still to be reported to the UN, Steve imagines that they don't have the official sanction to be either visiting or trading in the area, and shouldn’t have been there in the first place. In fact, they might not be much more than pirates themselves.
Either way, Steve is getting three hundred thousand dollars for less than two months work. He can't complain, not when a large chunk of that money is going directly into his local VA centre. Steve’s long time friend, Sam, has been finding credible ways to justify the donations for years now and has it down to an art. Sometimes Steve stops by and marvels at the difference between the place he remembers from his own days fresh into civilian life and the facilities they have now.
It’s a job well done. They have their hostages, and both of them are alive. The team is all in one piece and, once they blow a hole in the side of the vessel, there wouldn't be a scrap of tangible evidence that they had ever been there at all.
The Winter Soldier hasn’t shown his face, and the emotion overtaking the satisfaction of a successful job surely isn’t disappointment...
No. No, Steve's not disappointed. If he never sees Hydra’s chief monster again he can die a happy man.
SIX DAYS LATER
Steve Rogers is a Close Protection Executive. The title is a fancy way of saying bodyguard, which he unquestionably is , but neither bodyguard or CPE give an accurate depiction of what it is Steve actually does.
To understand that, one needs to understand the type of people Steve takes as clients.
First off, he doesn’t do long term contracts. Most of his clients pay for his services on a week by week basis. There are some exceptions. The Somalia job, for example, which which stands out both for length and the fact that he was there to fix someone else’s fuckups, instead of preventing them from happening in the first place.
For the most part, Steve provides front line protection, both foreign and domestic, to some of the most important people in the world. Not movie stars and politicians, but CEOs and scientists, peacekeepers and powerbrokers. He protects people whose life and death can change history. That’s his job. Those are the clients he takes on the books.
Off the books, he’s been known to pose as the overprotective boyfriend/brother/roommate for people with stalkers; as a human shield for children testifying against abusers in court and, if the occasion calls for it, hired muscle to knock some sense into those who really need to think about the way they impose their power on others. His boss, Wanda Maximoff, does a good job of pretending not to know about those jobs, even though she’s never once tried to book him a new client while he’s been otherwise engaged.
It works well enough for Steve, who gets to travel enough to pretend he’s not homesick for New York. He’s in London because of a girl. That girl now practically runs MI6 and has as much time for relationships as Steve does. He doesn’t regret anything, but sometimes he misses things uniquely irreplaceable from home. But he’s been in London for years now, and though he visits New York to see Sam, and is frequently taken there on assignment, he’s learned to love it here.
The traffic is, at least, comparable awful.
That’s the only indication that the day is going to take the fast lane to hell in a handbasket: the asshole that cuts him off at Piccadilly Circus. That’s it . That’s all the warning he gets. For clarity’s sake, there should have been a bigger sign. A line in his daily horoscope or an email or a fucking billboard or something . Just some small sign to give him some warning that, when he opens the office door to collect his next client, the fucking Winter Soldier will be standing on the other fucking side of it.
James Barnes, aka the aforementioned Winter Soldier aka the bane of Steve’s entire fucking life, steps out of the office safe room, sees Steve, and immediately goes for his gun.
So does Steve, which leads to a painful few seconds of Barnes trying to break his kneecap and Steve trying to gouge out Barnes’s left eye, before the both of them are twisted up in their own limbs, a gun to each other’s head.
“When you’re both done,” Wanda says, walking past them both with an air of apathetic annoyance, “come take a seat in the lounge.”
Neither Barnes or Steve move. They’re nose to nose. Close enough to touch. Close enough to kiss.
Close enough to get really fucking messed up when they pull the trigger and put a bullet in each other’s brains.
Understanding dawns silent and mutually begrudging. On three, they ease back. Barnes slides his gun back under the leather of his jacket and heads after Wanda. “You got any Dr Pepper?” he asks.
Steve’s left in the hallway, sore, confused and desperately wondering who the fuck he screwed in a past life to deserve this shit before coffee.
“You’ve been following the news,” Wanda says. Her seat is behind the only desk in the room and her presence fills the whole space, small and quiet though she is. “The Alexander Pierce case.”
Barnes has taken the one seat opposite her, leaving Steve with a precariously small armchair to perch on. He balances out of sheer spite and glares a hole into the back of Barnes’s head before turning his attention to Wanda. “Of course. The biggest name in organized crime finally makes it to trial? Pretty hard not to follow that one. Especially when he turns out to be the fucking Secretary of State.” It’s part of the reason that so many Hydra operations are going balls up. Their leader is about to go on trial and no one can really decide who is next in line. The political shitstorm is just the icing on the cake. Then, a sense of dread slowly crawling up his spike to manifest itself in the world’s worst headache, the reason Barnes is here dawns on him. “ You’re the special informant,” he accuses. “The witness who can tie Pierce to everything.”
Barnes, who has the Dr Pepper he’d asked for in his gloved hands, ignores him and continues to lazily sip from the can.
Wanda answers for him. “James turned WITSEC last fall, but the US Marshals have struggled to provide suitable protection.”
Steve snorts. When Hydra want someone dead, that someone doesn’t typically last long in this world. Most of that is down to the man set next to him. Interpol have long suspected that Barnes wasn’t their only asset. Now they can apparently prove it.
Wanda continues. “The FBI and Interpol formed a taskforce to handle the case, but so far, there have been nine separate attempts on James’s life. No matter where they take him, no matter how deep they go, Hydra have been able to catch up to them within a matter of days."
“You taught your little assassin buddies well,” Steve says sardonically.
“It’s a solid training program,” Barnes says, nodding with unironic agreement. “You still haven’t told me why he’s here.”
It’s a dumb question, because they both know exactly why Steve is here, which makes it all the more important to vocalize just how terrible Wanda’s idea actually is. “He’s tried to kill me twenty six times !” Steve stresses, then frowns, remembering Fife, “Twenty seven times. Once with a… a....” he looks at Barnes, “what exactly was that thing you were using in Beirut?”
“Was that the one with the three blades and the rotating hilt?” Barnes nods. “He tried to kill me with a rotating death blade, and the time before that he stabbed me in the hand with a letter opener!” Steve holds up his left hand and indicates the faint scar, still visible against his summer tan.
“They sell them on eBay.” Barnes sets the empty can down on the edge of Wanda’s desk and then leans back casually in his chair. “I can get you one, if you like?”
“People are trying to kill you,” Steve says with almost clinical calmness. “And I entirely understand their reasoning. It’s a sentiment I share.”
“Steve.” Wanda’s voice is rarely anything other than low and even. When it sharpens to match the irritation of her expression, it’s usually a sign to pay attention. Steve holds up his hands in surrender and stays quiet. “Three days. That’s all. Get him to The Hague in one piece. I’m not asking.”
“We can bunk together,” Barnes mocks. “It’ll be cosy.” When Steve’s sullen silence turns childish, a nasty smile turns up the corners of his mouth. “If it’s too much for you, I can always go see your ex. MI6. Carter, isn’t it? She’s a real pistol. How’d you fuck that one up?”
Steve breaks his silence with a snarl, and a swing of his fist.
Barnes’s smirking mouth is a lot less irritating when it’s bloodied.
He touches his lip and grins, eyes almost feral and focused unblinkingly on Steve.
Steve contemplates kicking him out of the window.
“I’ll keep him alive until the trial,” Steve says. “But I’m not gonna promise he’ll all be in one piece.”
Wanda inclines her head. He’s agreed to the job, and that’s all she cares about. The finer details she’s willing to leave to Steve’s discretion.
Barnes holds up his can. “Can I get one of these for the road?”
Three days. Three days, Steve tells himself. He can manage three days.