James watched wordlessly as the other man struggled to cut himself out of the cast that had covered the entirety of his right arm and shoulder for the better part of the past month. His lips were tight under his beard and his glasses threatened to slide down his nose. The knife was far too dull to be of use.
He wasn’t dangerous, James knew, not to him. He was just a dead man. A bit more alive than James himself.
“Brought you this,” the man said when he was done, flexing the muscles in his hand as he reached into his messenger bag and tossed a bottle of pills at James, before picking up the knife and taking it to the cast covering his leg.
James had caught the bottle out of the air and was turning it over in his hand, staring at the small print on the label without really reading it.
“What are they?”
Tearing the last bits of cast off his leg, Jasper Sitwell straightened up and scratched his beard, the scars and scabs that it barely covered, nodding at James.
“You’ll need to sleep sometime or this won’t work.”
James didn’t reply, only watched in silence as Sitwell shoved the handful of belongings James had salvaged from his apartment into a ragged duffel bag. He could feel his own gun pressing into the small of his back, well hidden by the hoodie Sitwell had given him after James had found him, and, to his own surprise, hadn’t shot him.
“Are you coming?” Sitwell asked from the door, bag slung over his shoulder, baseball cap pulled deep into his face and collar of his second-hand tracksuit turned up. Sitwell was no hero.
“Don’t shoot me, please, don’t kill me, I’ll give you everything, anything-“
James got up from the ratty couch he’d sat on and pulled up the zipper of his hoodie, pocketing the bottle of sleeping pills.
It wasn’t quite a mission, but it was something.
“I’ll help you get them, I can help you chase down HYDRA.”
Sitwell was no hero, but he was useful. He was a dead man, and he didn’t ask questions.
It was a start.
“Don’t kill him, we-!” Sitwell’s voice spoke in his ear, the second half of the sentence was drowned out by the sound of a gunshot. “Motherfucker…”
James ignored the rest of Sitwell’s tirade in favour of leaving a trail of gasoline behind himself as he left the building, stepping over the dying bodies of HYDRA brawn and brains on his way. When he’d dropped the match and the building had started to go up in flames, he took out his in-ear and switched it off as he disappeared into the shadows cast by the fire.
Hundreds of dark streets and rooftops later he found a mostly empty cardboard dumpster and fought sleep until the sun came up.
He found Sitwell parked near the train station the next morning, reading the paper behind the wheel of their stolen car with a haunted look on his face. He didn’t say anything when James opened the passenger door and got in, merely started the engine and drove off.
“The paper doesn’t mention survivors,” Sitwell said after a couple of turns, on the quickest route out of town.
“No,” James replied simply and Sitwell’s fingers flexed on the steering wheel. The lights ahead turned red and James could feel Sitwell’s hesitating gaze on him. He could see his own haggard reflection in the side mirror and his shoulders tensed as Sitwell twisted around in his seat and fished a paper bag off the back seat.
“Options weren’t great,” Sitwell remarked as he held it out to James, who stared at it, not sure what to expect. They had stocked up on ammo and meds before the last mission; Sitwell had even gotten him more sleeping pills to carry around in his pocket.
The lights turned green.
“What is it?” James asked and Sitwell dropped the bag in his lap.
“A dryish bagel and a coke,” Sitwell replied as they changed lanes to get onto the highway.
It was quiet for a while and James slowly unwrapped his food, eating without paying much attention to the taste, and washing it down with half the bottle of coke.
“We could have used some intel,” Sitwell said at one point, when they had stopped for petrol and James had been brooding over the tattered map that lived in the glove compartment for half an hour. Sitwell shuffled his feet. “It’s not like I don’t like seeing them go up in flames, but if we don’t keep it down, a whole bunch of people are going to catch up with us.”
James groaned impatiently, too tired to argue, eyelids drooping despite his best efforts to keep awake. He couldn’t sleep, not in a car, not with-
Sitwell shoved a cup of coffee under his nose when he returned from paying for the petrol, his own cup already half empty.
James left as soon as Sitwell had found a hotel to stay in.
It wasn’t until Sitwell gave him a rundown of his next op over lunch at a greasy diner the next day that James managed to shove aside the mental images of a brunette girl with a purple coat, a gun and a French accent. He had no idea who she was, whether she was a memory, whether he’d killed her, or whether she was just a random girl he’d seen on the street two weeks ago. Maybe he’d never seen her at all.
She disappeared, mercifully, beneath numbers of hostiles, floor plans, mission objectives.
This time, James took five minutes to squeeze information out of the man that looked like he might know the most before he let the building go up. But up it went, loudly, and the voice on the other end of the comm didn’t sound happy.
Sitwell looked mildly pacified by the data stick though when James disappeared out the window of the hotel room into the night. He turned back only briefly to catch a glimpse of the shadows underneath Sitwell’s eyes as he sat bent over his laptop.
“Have fun?” James asked and Sitwell jumped at the sudden sound, dropping the key to the room in surprise. James didn’t usually stay at hotels, preferred to sleep in places that felt safer. Tonight was not going to be a night for sleeping, though.
Sitwell’s eyes darted to the gun that lay on the table in front of James, right next to Sitwell’s open laptop. James hadn’t seen him look nervous very often after their first meeting just outside the “office” of the former surgeon who had patched both Sitwell and James up in return for his life in James’s case, and what James assumed must have been a roll of money in Sitwell’s case. The fact that Sitwell had been desperate enough to throw in his lot with the Winter Soldier had kind of made nervousness a pointless affectation.
“No,” Sitwell replied after a moment, sitting down on the bed and looking over at James, who shut the laptop and picked up his gun.
He was about to leave when Sitwell said, “I’m looking for a man who might believe me.”
James contemplated him for a while, then shrugged.
Sitwell was halfway down the fire ladder, duffel bag slung over his shoulder, when bullets began to sing past his ears and hit the brick wall behind him. He cursed into his in-ear, climbing frantically down, flinching whenever a bullet hit close by his head, and jumped down to the next level when one hit the duffel bag.
He had been babbling under his breath ever since it had become obvious that the mission had gone south, muttering instructions and meeting points at James, who had gone completely silent after entering the warehouse through which HYDRA ran its weapon supplies in the greater area.
There were two more levels between Sitwell and the ground and he was about to take his chances and swan dive into the dumpsters below when the window next to him shattered and he felt himself being hauled into the building by the neck in the most uncomfortable déjà vu.
Crouching down on the floor and picking glass shards out of his forehead, he heard two, three, four shots being fired above him and looked up at James, who picked him up by the collar and dragged him down the corridor they were in towards the stairs.
The single, probably not even functional camera in the lobby was blasted off the wall as they came down the stairs and the receptionist dove behind the counter for protection.
Each of James’s shots was precise and he shoved Sitwell out onto the streets and down badly lit alleys until they reached the junkyard behind which they’d left their newest car.
“Be back here in four hours,” he told Sitwell, pressing a gun into his hand and giving him a push in the direction of the car. He could hear Sitwell protest as he walked away, but he had a mission to complete.
The worst thing about being shot, James thought as he waited for Sitwell to pull up exactly four hours later, was how cold he felt. He hated feeling cold.
Dropping onto the back seat and dragging the door shut behind him, he fumbled for the duffel bag and the medi kit they kept with them. He could hear Sitwell curse when he turned around in his seat at a red light to look at James.
“Shit, man, we should have-… what the hell did you do?”
“Finished it,” James mumbled while getting an anaesthetic injection into himself. They’d gotten him in the thigh, straight through the muscle, and it wasn’t going to kill him.
They drove past what was left of the HYDRA warehouse on their way out of town and Sitwell looked slightly pale around the nose, lips quietly moving around words like ‘safe house’ and ‘covering tracks’.
“Just get me a coffee,” James groaned as he let his head fall back onto the seat in exhaustion. He didn’t want to sleep. He had a bad feeling about sleep after last night.
“I hope you’re proud of yourself,” Sitwell said, looking decidedly less faint a couple of hours later when he slammed down two pizza boxes and a newspaper in front of James, who half sat, half lay on a dingy motel bed, changing the bandage on his thigh. “We’ve got Captain America on our ass.”
There was a picture of the burnt out warehouse on the front page and a mention of Steve Rogers being seen talking to people in the gossip column at the back of the paper.
James reached for the pizza and turned back to the laptop he’d propped up beside himself.
“Of course you don’t care,” Sitwell sighed, slumping down on the one chair that was in the room and taking off his glasses to wipe them with the hem of his shirt.
“He’s not going to kill us,” James said after a couple of minutes of silence.
“He’s not going to kill you,” Sitwell corrected, snorting a little hysterically. “Me? He might throw me off a roof for real this time.”
“So would everyone else who finds you,” James replied, looking at Sitwell and chewing on a slice of pizza. Sitwell’s face hardened, but it was true; no side ever took kindly to traitors.
“I want to move west,” Sitwell changed the topic, rubbing the bridge of his nose before putting his glasses back on. “There’s one HYDRA outpost I know of about three days from here, but from then on we’ll have to bring more intel in when we go out. There’s gotta be more, I just don’t know where.”
“You worked with Pierce,” James stated coldly and Sitwell huffed a humourless laugh.
“So I did,” he muttered before disappearing into the bathroom, hand shoved into his jacket pocket.
When he came back out, James had deleted his browser history, shut the laptop, and was leaning back against the headboard of the bed, dozing with his eyes half shut.
Three months later James contemplated cutting his hair as the sharp wind whipped strands into his eyes. On the street below, Sam Wilson was carrying breakfast up to the hotel he and Steve Rogers were staying in, much the same fashion that Sitwell tended to return from his morning rounds to get the newspaper.
James waited until Sam had disappeared into the hotel building before moving away across the roof and down the drainpipe into a back alley. Three streets further he ducked into a café so charming it was the last place to go looking for a killer and a turncoat.
Taking the fork off Sitwell’s plate of eggs, James sat down without a greeting, pulled the food towards him and took a bite. Sitwell didn’t jump, only folded his newspaper down, and his shoulders relaxed. He’d dropped the Breaking-Bad-jumpsuit look a week earlier and groomed his beard into something civilised to go with his v-neck cashmere sweater and corduroys, which even James, without much frame of fashion reference, thought looked mildly hilarious.
“We should have been out of here last night,” Sitwell muttered, looking out at the rest of the café from the secluded corner table they occupied, while James signalled the waitress that he was having what Sitwell was having.
“And go where?” James replied calmly, smiling briefly when his coffee was put down in front of him. He eyed Sitwell over the rim of the cup. “It’s clear that they work on intel better than ours or they wouldn’t be this close on our heels.”
“Yes, that ‘close on our heels’ being the operative phrase here,” Sitwell said, glancing at the folded newspaper. “They were there almost before we were, James. If they-“
“You worry too much,” James interrupted, taking his plate of eggs from the waitress with another smile. “We just let them go ahead.”
It wasn’t a HYDRA base this time, but one bastard scumbag with a cause and James didn’t pause long enough to think that he might actually remember the asshole before he put a bullet in his head.
The shot was too loud and the area too unprotected and he didn’t hang around to watch the Rogers-Wilson duo skid around the corner and frantically frown at the rooftops. Sometimes he did, when he wasn’t eager to go back right away. He’d even let Rogers catch a glimpse of him once, when it had looked like they were about to give up, and when James and Sitwell really had needed them to point them into possible directions some more. After they’d lost James’s trail Wilson had floored it all the way to the next town with a HYDRA base in it and Sitwell had bristled about super soldier sleeping patterns as they’d taken up pursuit at four in the morning.
Sitwell was asleep against the headboard of the bed when James returned to the hotel room. James dropped his in-ear onto the table and cleaned himself up in the bathroom before going back in and taking the laptop that had slid off Sitwell’s lap and onto the mattress.
One of SHIELD’s old search programmes was running, looking for some name James was pretty sure was an alias for the same man all the other aliases had been for. James didn’t know who Sitwell was trying to find, but from the way he kept his old SHIELD badge in his pocket and stared at it bitterly when he thought James wasn’t watching, he had his suspicions.
He opened a new browser window and stared at it for a moment before beginning to type. This wasn’t recon, anything would do. Anything, as long as it was real.
He was woken an indefinite time later by the shrill ringing of his cell phone and he jerked upright from where he had fallen asleep on top of the keyboard.
The room was empty and James’s right hand found the phone the same moment his left found his gun.
“I’m being followed, I d-” His voice crackled and a shot was audible through the phone. “-out… -otel. Run.”
“Got it.” James hung up, shoving the laptop into the duffel bag just when the first bullet whirred past his face, and he took the direct route through a window out the other side of the building than that of their room. There was a car parked around the corner and James had it started and halfway down the street before its owner came running from a nearby hot dog cart.
Belting away from the hotel, he began to follow the faint sounds of gunfire that tore through the yet quiet dawn downtown, taking a turn into the direction sirens and were coming from. From the corner of his eye he could see familiar movements along the rooftops and, tyres screeching, sped down a back alley, one arm reaching for his gun.
Sitwell was holding up well, all things considered. He was more or less cornered, but had sufficient cover to still be alive, at least for the time being. Once the people on the rooftops caught up, they’d both be dead.
It wasn’t very different from marching into a HYDRA compound, James figured as he cracked necks and put bullet holes in all the right places. Sitwell moved as soon as James had provided enough distraction. He was making his way across motionless bodies, eyes wide and hands shaking around the grip of his gun.
“Get in the car,” James snarled at him, picking off the first rooftop sniper that had arrived on scene before making his way to the driver’s side. A bullet ricocheted off his metal arm and he barely turned his head around in time for the second gunshot that echoed through the back alley.
“Shit, shit, shit, shit...” Sitwell muttered as the second sniper fell off the building. The gun in Sitwell’s hand was shaking badly and James had a split second to duck into the car and pull Sitwell back in through the open passenger window he was leaning out of.
They reversed out of the backstreet at breakneck speed and James knew there wouldn’t be time to go back for their own car; they’d have to get a new one somewhere.
“Shut up,” he told Sitwell, who was still muttering curses under his breath.
Fourteen hours, seven cars and six fake motel reservations later, one and a half states over, James found Sitwell at a corner table in a dingy basement bar with half broken pool tables, hidden in an impressive cloud of smoke that seemed to cover the entire room.
James sat down opposite him, a bottle of beer that was entirely for show in his hand.
“That was a good shot,” he said by way of a greeting and Sitwell emptied his glass of whisky in reply. James pushed the bottle of beer at him.
“They were SHIELD,” Sitwell slurred after a long moment. “Not HYDRA. Actually SHIELD. Or whatever’s left of it…”
“Does it make a difference?”
“I don’t know.” Sitwell snorted, taking a sip of beer. “Maybe not. Treason’s treason.”
James took the bottle from Sitwell’s hands and took a swig before handing it back.
“Back to tracksuits for you then,” he offered and Sitwell snorted, a waver in his voice.
“You have,” he pointed at James, “the worst sense of humour.”
“A bit late for regret now. On all accounts,” James answered, a bit less coarse than he tended to, and Sitwell looked thoughtful, surprised by himself when he said,
“I’m not sure I regret it. Either way.” He looked at James. Or squinted, more like. He had gotten one hell of a head start. “Can I tell you something? I mean, do you care?”
“Before the Battle of New York,” Sitwell began, turning his empty whisky glass in his hands and watching the melting ice cubes rolling around inside, “they took a couple of SHIELD agents and turned them on the rest, did you know? Mind control.” James’s jaw twitched, but he merely nodded. He’d read about it. He didn’t want to think about it too much.
“One of my best friends at SHIELD was killed by an attack launched against us by our own people.”
“…I’m sorry,” James muttered in reply. He guessed he kind of was, and he gestured the barkeeper to keep the beer coming.
“Yeah, sorry,” Sitwell snorted, putting down the glass and taking another sip of beer. “I was sorry too. Sorry at his funeral, sorry at his goddamn wake. Sorry when I took on some of his work. Really fucking sorry.”
He paused for a long moment during which the barkeeper brought them two new beers.
“So, the agent who led the attack against SHIELD – I met him for a drink, about a month after the funeral, right?” He raised his new beer to James, whose cheek twitched in a vague attempt at a smile he didn’t really feel. “And he tells me, after five or six beers or so, he tells me he still feels that pull somewhere in his head, like he can hear echoes in his dreams. And we all know the bad guy’s back on Asgard and it’s all fine, but I tell him I’ll have a look and make extra sure it’s all gone and destroyed, you know? Be a good friend. And guess what?”
James decided he wasn’t really supposed to say anything, and he wouldn’t have known what anyway, so he nodded, taking a swig of beer to bridge the silence. Sitwell took a handful of gulps of his own beer and stifled a burp.
“I find nothing,” he laughed humourlessly. “Not a damn thing. No files, no trace of what happened to the wreckage, the corpses, anything. I hit a bunch of walls of red tape and get a slap on the wrist from Fury, along with a promotion. A couple of months later my dead friend is alive again; no explanation, he’s just back. Like he never even died, no paper trail, just more red tape and it’s all so classified, the few of us who know, we aren’t supposed to talk about how he ain’t the same person he used to be, how he’s got a memory gap the size of the goddamn plane they put him on, and off he goes on a string of faraway missions. I try to… try to, you know… Fury calls me up to his office, tells me to let it go.”
Sitwell took James’s offered bottle when he’d emptied his own and his eyes were beginning to glass over.
“So eventually I start digging where Fury and his eyes won’t see and I find…”
“HYDRA,” James finished for him and Sitwell bit his lip, looking almost defiant.
“HYDRA. Who have me strapped to a lie detector, and when they ask me why I’ve been snooping around, I tell them because I don’t trust Fury. Next thing I know I’m having lunch with Alexander Pierce.” He ran a hand through his beard, scratching at the scar tissue up the side of his face that had kissed the asphalt with Winter Soldier force. A slightly hysteric laugh escaped his throat, closely followed by a hiccup.
“Who was I supposed to-… I’m not stupid, you think I didn’t know? You think I believe in that ‘order to the chaos’ crap? I wanted to save SHIELD, except who the hell was I supposed to trust? SHIELD, it was all a lie, the longer I looked at it. Fury? The man who brings people back from the dead and feeds lies to Captain America, and is about as quick to eliminate a couple million people as HYDRA, as long as he can tell himself they’re the bad guys?”
He fell silent.
“There was no-one to trust with this, so I thought I’d hang in there and bide my time... until I just... gave up. Figured Project Insight would take me out sooner or later, no matter whose side I was on.” He cradled his head in his hands as it sank towards the table top. “I shot a SHIELD agent today…”
Ten minutes later, James dragged Sitwell’s half-conscious form towards their hotel. He could feel Sitwell jerk awake when he accidentally knocked his head into a wall, but half a second later his body slumped again, one hand aimlessly grabbing for James’s arm.
“I like you, you know,” Sitwell slurred into his armpit, making an effort to take the steps up to the room himself. “You’re the first… good thing that happened to me since…”
He fell asleep as soon as his head hit the bed James dropped him onto.
James hadn’t moved, against the initial impulse to slip out through the restrooms, circle back, and find a vantage spot. Instead, there was a large, leafy pot plant shielding him from the room at large, and the fact that most of the customers were early morning joggers who wore variations of the same hoodie James himself had put on gave him an additional layer of anonymity.
Also, Rogers looked tired. Really tired. From the stiffness in his back and shoulders and the state of his hair, James assumed he had driven all night and only just arrived in town. His eyes kept falling shut as he sat by the window, early morning sun in his face.
James contemplated him as he sipped his own coffee, Sitwell’s going lukewarm in its take-away cup. He had no actual memory of Rogers looking quite like this; not in a uniform, not in a war zone, not on alert, and not defiant and about to bite off more than his 90-pound ass could chew, either. Huge and tired and unaware in civilian clothes was a new one.
When the door to the coffee shop opened and Wilson came in, rubbing sleep from his eyes and paying for his own cup of coffee without really looking at the money or the coffee, Rogers shifted, smiling when the other man slid into the seat opposite him. Wilson held out his hand and Rogers dropped a bunch of keys into it.
They were talking quietly in a way that suggested that it wasn’t anything important and Rogers’s tired smile turned into a long yawn into his hand. Wilson looked amused and nudged Rogers’s coffee cup with his own.
James watched them banter quietly until Rogers rolled his eyes, groaning out a long-drawn “Saaaam” and James decided that somehow, he was thoroughly sick of looking at them, to a point where he wasn’t sure why he had even decided to to begin with.
He took the exit through the bathroom and chose a route consisting primarily of back streets to get back to the hotel, picking up something to nibble on from a store on the way and snarling at the cashier.
Sitwell was still passed out on his stomach, snoring and drooling into the pillow. He looked comfortably revolting, and he stank, and James opened the window before sitting himself down with the laptop and continuing to read through the news where he’d stopped earlier.
“Brought you coffee,” he remarked with a smirk when Sitwell’s breathing changed and he was waking up. Sitwell hauled himself onto his side and looked around the room in confusion, turning slightly green at the sight and smell of cold coffee. He sat up, groaning and grabbing at his head, trying to shield his eyes from the daylight.
“My, don’t you look fucking wholesome,” he groused at James, who was watching him while chewing on a dried peach.
“Should have seen Captain America in the morning sun,” he replied and Sitwell blinked at him.
“Mh,” James muttered, picking another peach out of the bag. “No worries, we’ll get you that new tracksuit.”
“What, because that’ll stop them?” Sitwell got up and, scratching his thigh, dragged himself towards the bathroom.
“Easier to hide a parachute in one,” James deadpanned before Sitwell had drawn the door shut behind himself.
The last thing he heard before he jumped headfirst off the bridge into the black water below was Steve Rogers yelling his name somewhere behind him.
Police sirens were already wailing when he hit the surface. His comm died on impact, but the escape vehicle was where it was supposed to be.
“Do you remember him?” Sitwell asked, breaking the silence that had fallen for the past two and a half hours of highway and turning his head when James didn’t immediately react. He looked out at the scenery flying by from under his lashes, seemingly lost in thought. Sitwell turned his eyes back to the road.
“Yeah, I do,” James replied then, moving his head away from the window and pulling himself out of his slouch. “Some of it comes back sometimes.”
Sitwell looked surprised and James shrugged.
“I don’t really know how to relate to any of it.” He paused. “I might as well not.”
Another five miles passed them by before either of them spoke again.
"It's a trap," James muttered into his earpiece, moving from his vantage point to take another way in.
"It doesn't look like a trap." Sitwell's frown was audible through the line and James smirked when he began looking around the nearby streets for a manhole. "How do you know?"
"I know," James replied, lifting the metal lid and tucking his sniper rifle closer to fit through the hole. "I've been part of this kinda thing before."
James was inside the building and halfway past all the security he knew lay waiting in the shadows and Sitwell still didn't sound convinced when he gave him updates on the security feed.
"Moving towards target location."
Two guards collapsed without a sound and James pulled a face at the creak of the door as he moved through. Sitwell was quiet for a moment, then hissed, sounding impressed.
"You were right, it was actually a trap."
James frowned and listened. Everything around him seemed quiet.
"What are you saying?"
"The Freedom Brothers just walked right into it."
The door behind James burst open and he raised his gun to fire six shots in quick succession before tucking it away and switching to his rifle. He looked down at the small security unit and squared his jaw in frustration.
"Target's going to move. Great."
James cut into the most likely escape route from the lab his target was located in and killed the elevator before crawling up three levels and throwing a very surprised HYDRA guard a long, long way down.
"Looks like Wilson got away. But oh, this oughta be good," Sitwell muttered, still surveying the cameras in the building on the other end of the line. "You got a way out when you’re done?"
"Always," James replied, soundless in his steps as he approached the room ahead.
Captain America was alone and surrounded by seventeen armed men, and James resisted the urge to roll his eyes when punches inevitably began to fly halfway through a monologue by his own target, who had decided to stick around against anyone’s better judgement.
Sadly, the man was positioned strategically enough to stay out of a clean shot.
"We have got to stop meeting like this," James muttered as he pulled a grunt off Captain America's back on his way across the room.
"Agreed," Rogers pressed out, slamming a man back hard enough for bones to crack audibly. James noticed how his face twitched when another attacker dropped two feet away from him, a neat round hole bleeding out between his eyes.
The target, when James reached him, bullets deflected by his arm, was crumpling against the shelf lining the wall of the lab. The shards of the smashed glass doors crunched beneath James's feet.
"You!" The man coughed out as James's fingers closed around his throat and lifted him off the ground. The hand holding his gun was hanging limply by his side. "You had... orders!" James tightened his grip. "You were supposed to... to kill St-uh... Rogers."
His eyes darted past James's head for a split second and from the shuffling sounds and quiet moans behind him, James could tell Rogers was finishing up his distribution of Liberty.
"Then you should have known," he replied evenly as he turned the gun in the target's shaking hand into his stomach and pulled the trigger, "to never come between the Winter Soldier and his mission."
He didn't look at Rogers, who was talking quietly to someone on comm. He bent down to collect a couple of guns from the bodies on the floor as he stepped over to the broken window.
James was about to hoist himself up onto the window sill, but halted for a moment and slowly turned around to look at Captain America.
“I…” Rogers began and James sighed inwardly. “I’ve got a getaway car on the way.”
He looked so hopeful that James didn’t know whether to laugh or vomit. He could hear Sitwell start an engine on the other end of his comm and smirked, cocking his head.
“So do I,” he replied before pulling himself up and out the window.
“I am not qualified to be doing this,” Sitwell commented, poking at James’s metal arm hesitantly and James dropped his slice of pizza back into the box with a groan. He tried to tug his hair behind his ear and clenched his jaw in frustration when the singed strands fell right back into his face. The fire damage wasn’t as bad as it could have been, as the arm had caught the worst part of the fire and his skin was mostly undamaged save for the now bandaged area immediately around the arm, but his hair barely reached his chin on one side when it fell onto his shoulders on the other.
“Here’s how I see it,” he said, grabbing the fiery multi-purpose tool they had appropriated from one of the HYDRA bases they’d laid to waste, along with some data on the arm, and pressing it into Sitwell’s hand. “You reconnect the wrong wire and I might accidentally strangle you. You keep whining into my ear and I will definitely strangle you.”
“And who’s gonna cut your hair back into shape after you’ve done that?”
“I think I’ll do at least as good a job as the HYDRA hacks who chopped away at it before.”
Sitwell froze and it was dead quiet for a long time during which Sitwell did his best to follow the not-quite instructions in the files they had saved from HYDRA. He was just about to reconnect the last wire when James suddenly couldn’t hold it in anymore and burst out laughing, falling back onto the bed they were sitting on, chest heaving as he gulped in air.
“You should see your face,” he wheezed out and Sitwell glared at him.
“Yeah, that sense of humour? Still shit.”
“I need your help,” were the first words to come out of Steve Rogers’s mouth when James finally decided that it wasn’t a trap. “Please.”
He had been shadowing Rogers through most of town for the better part of the past two hours and James found himself surprised anyway.
“What – you-…” Sitwell burst out, pushing over his chair as he scrambled out of it backwards against the wall. “You brought Captain America back here?”
“Sitwell?” Rogers’s face darkened and he advanced slowly. “You have got to be kidding me-“
“No-one’s kidding,” James threw in, closing the door just loudly enough to turn Rogers’s head, and keeping his hand on his gun for good measure.
“You work with Jasper Sitwell?” he spat, pointing at Sitwell, who made a strangled noise of distress.
“And you asked us for help,” James replied, voice like steel. “These are my rules.”
For a long moment they stood glaring at each other before Rogers pressed his lips into a thin line, obviously conflicted as his gaze darted from James to Sitwell. He swallowed and his fists unclenched. James subtly relaxed his shoulders and took a quiet breath.
“Do I get to have any rules?” Sitwell threw in and James stepped away from the door and over to where Sitwell had put the table and the TV between himself and Steve Rogers. James picked up the laptop that had slipped off the bed in the excitement and put it down in front of Sitwell.
“Wilson is gone. We’re going to find him,” he said and Sitwell glanced from James to the laptop and back.
“Gone? How gone?”
“Probably-kidnapped-by-the-goons-we’ve-been-tracking gone.” James’s lips twitched when Sitwell narrowed his eyes, and he turned his head away to hide his grin behind his hair.
“Damn you, James,” Sitwell muttered, glancing at Rogers, who was still standing in the middle of the room looking unhappy. James straightened his face and turned around to quirk an eyebrow at the good Captain.
“Take it or leave it, Rogers.”
The other man flinched at the sound of his last name, but recovered quickly.
It was the longest coffee run in James’s history of coffee runs, but he did return with coffee once it had started to rain, hours into the night. Sitwell and Rogers were still up, wiping at their eyes tiredly and tracking security feeds across town, reluctantly communicating when it was absolutely necessary.
“We might have something,” Sitwell said, looking a bit worse for wear than Rogers, and James raised both his eyebrows when he looked at the notepad and the scribbled clues and directions the both of them had scattered all over it. There were satellite shots of a seemingly abandoned factory complex pretty much in the middle of nowhere, built upon a cliff that led down into some river James didn’t need to know the name of.
“It’s a day’s drive if we’re right,” Rogers said, pulling up a map on the laptop and glancing at Sitwell and James as if he was trying to find out whether Captain-America mode was going to work with them. “I say we leave tomorrow morning and go in at nightfall.”
“That’s actually a good idea,” Sitwell threw in, decidedly shoving the cup of coffee away from himself and moving into the bathroom. “I need some shuteye before I do this.”
“We all do,” Rogers nodded and looked around the room, taking in the single bed to one side and not quite looking at James. After a moment of hesitation, he sat down on the floor, leaning against the radiator and looking around awkwardly.
“Knock yourself out.” James moved to sit in Sitwell’s chair and pulled the entire tray of coffee to himself. “I don’t sleep.”
“What? But-“ Rogers broke off when Sitwell returned to the room and, after a quick survey of sleeping arrangements, nodded at James, turned off the light and collapsed onto the bed.
James let silence settle over the room before he found Rogers’s eyes in the semi-darkness by the window.
“I have slept enough for this lifetime,” he said darkly and Sitwell groaned into his pillow.
Rogers didn’t reply or so much as breathe loudly for a long time, only shifted until he found a comfortable position from which he eyed James with an unreadable expression until he fell asleep. James had pulled the laptop up on the table next to him and was mindlessly surfing the internet, occasionally watching Rogers or Sitwell when either of them moved or made a noise in their sleep.
The rain outside stopped close to dawn and James was flexing his left arm in the bathroom after a quick coffee run, grimacing when the mechanics whirred quietly, but not quite as quietly as they were supposed to. He retained full motion for now, but he could feel that something was off.
“I told you not to let me touch it,” Sitwell said from the door and James blinked at him in the mirror.
“It’s fine.” He grabbed his shirt and pulled it back over his head. Sitwell picked up the combat jacket on the floor and turned it over, eyeing the part that had been torn during their last mission and that James had mended over the past two hours. He let out a low whistle.
“You know, we could have just bought you a new one.”
“Back in my day we knew how to fix our shit, Jasper,” James replied with a snort and took the garment from Sitwell’s hands, grinning widely.
“Anyone ever tell you to fix your chipper mug at five in the morning?” Sitwell scowled, flopping down on the closed toilet seat, scratching his beard.
“Yeah,” James shot back, slipping into his jacket and nodding at the room, “Go ask him how that worked out for him.”
Sitwell eyed him narrowly for a moment, then reached to turn on the faucet. James rolled his eyes and stepped out of the bathroom, where Rogers was – surprise – already awake and going over their notes, eyes stubbornly focusing on the map.
“We should split up,” James said, causing Rogers to look up. “Two cars.”
“They’re expecting you. They’re not expecting me. I want to keep it that way for a while longer.”
It wasn’t until they watched Rogers drive off ahead that Sitwell turned to James and asked,
“So why the two cars?”
“Because he wasn’t exactly wrong.” James let himself fall into the passenger’s seat and dropped his head back against the headrest. “I do need sleep for this.”
They had been scouting out the rather large factory area for almost two hours, dodging cameras and slowly making their way towards what appeared to be the main building when Sitwell’s end of the comm line went quiet. James tapped his in-ear a couple of times, frowning back in the general direction of where they’d parked the car; not that he could see it from his current position.
“I don’t like this,” Rogers pressed out and James glanced at him sideways. “I still don’t trust him.”
“I do,” James cut him off, listening for sounds of commotion in the night air. There was nothing, and they were far enough from any bigger town for it to be properly quiet.
“He worked for HYDRA,” Rogers pointed out as they made their way into a storage building adjacent to the main facility.
“As did I,” James replied simply, covering Rogers’s mouth and pulling him into the shadows. They had decided to stir up as little trouble as possible on their way in, as they didn’t actually know where Wilson was being held, if he was here at all. James figured they could always blow up the place on their way out.
Rogers didn’t exactly struggle, but protested by huffing against James’s hand until he let him go.
James didn’t pay him or his stern face any attention, eyes instead on the security camera above the door to the main building that slowly moved to cover the room they were hiding in. He watched its routine for a while, trying to get a feeling for the length of time they wouldn’t be visible moving out. He searched the walls for further motion sensors and took two EMP bullets from one of his pockets when he found them.
“I’m not exactly a fan of the stealth approach,” Rogers gritted out as they pulled themselves up the elevator shaft. It had been okay the first four storeys, but even James had to admit he would have preferred a more direct way in. Not that he was ever going to admit it out loud.
“I’ll sound the battle trumpet as soon as I get a hand free,” he grunted in reply, turning his head to look at Rogers when he stopped climbing with an astonished face. “What?”
“Nothing, you…” Rogers was staring at him. “It’s just… you’ve said this to me before.”
“I know,” James replied exasperatedly. “And I then I told you to quit whining. Keep climbing before someone calls the goddamned elevator.”
There was no trace of Sam Wilson ever having set foot on the premises. The monitor in the small control room showed no security footage, and there were no records of a capture, either.
“Any trace of Sitwell?” James asked, shoving Rogers a little away from the computer and frowning at the grainy camera images.
“Let’s hope not,” his comm came back to life and a smile spread on James’s face before he could help it.
“What, decided to come back after all?”
“My moral compass is pretty shit, but then I remembered you’d miss me at night,” Jasper snarked back. “I had to move camp. Good news is I now have access to their computers.”
“Can he find Sam?” Rogers asked, clicking through the different camera feeds. “Because we can’t-“
“Wait,” James stilled his hand, eyes fixed on the last image on the screen. “I know this man.”
“You and me both,” Steve growled, face darkening. “Rumlow.”
The shooting started not long after they’d left the small control room to move back down and out of the building towards the smaller one Rumlow had been in when they’d spotted him on the monitor. HYDRA goons were running left and right and to his utmost satisfaction, James didn’t run out of rounds once, picking up guns and hand grenades as they went along.
“Something’s going on ahead. Can you get some high ground?”
He could see Rogers from the corner of his eye, not too far away, but not close enough to get in the way of the shield, either. Close enough to yell, apparently.
Picking up the next weapon with a sight, James moved up a nearby truck, lifting the tarp covering the cargo briefly to make sure it wasn’t going to explode under his ass before he began to pick off hostiles on the ground.
“Commotion ahead by the cliff. They’re rolling out some big guns,” he muttered into his comm and Rogers cast a quick glance his way before catching his shield out of the air.
“Been a while since we took on a tank.”
He had barely finished when a barrel ahead exploded in a bright ball of flames and for a moment everyone froze in surprise.
“James, you got incoming at your six,” Sitwell’s voice said and James dove off the truck before the first bullets hit.
“Thanks,” he breathed, moving along with Rogers, who had appeared by his side. “What was that?”
“The diversion you could use right now,” Sitwell replied. “Looks like Rumlow is about to fly the coop.”
“Copy,” James replied, looking at Rogers. “We got to-“
He didn’t get to finish, Rogers’s shield snapping up to cover James’s head a split second before bullets began to ricochet off of it with a metallic beat. They ducked into cover and James barely had time to breathe out a thank you before hostiles turned the corner and dropped dead before James had time to raise his gun.
“What the hell are you doing?” Sam Wilson said as he turned the corner, taking cover beside them.
“You’re here!” Rogers blurted out.
“Damn right, I’m here,” Wilson replied. “Where the fuck were you? I’ve been keeping eyes on this place for the past two days waiting for you to catch up and what the hell is this?” He looked at James with a mix of horrified and terribly amused confusion, then back at Rogers. “Didn’t you get my signal?”
“So you weren’t kidnapped?” James stated, taking a glance around the corner of their hideout to make sure nobody was approaching.
“I saw them take Rumlow out of hospital and took up pursuit,” Wilson said in consternation, glaring at Rogers. “I switched on the homing device on my phone, man.”
“We…” Rogers began, then flung his shield to take down a sniper not far away. “-got to move.”
James took his time to catch up with them, opting for a high route to cover a wider range and get decidedly better shots. When he dropped into the shadows, Rogers and Wilson had come to the conclusion that it had all been a giant misunderstanding.
“Whatever happened, the signal didn’t make it,” James interrupted, repeating what Sitwell had been telling him through the comm. “It was either blocked, damaged, or didn’t make the distance. Can we focus on Rumlow?”
“We’re not here for Rumlow,” Rogers threw in and James and Wilson both replied grimly,
“Yes, we are.”
“Can we still get him?” James panted into his comm, hands gripping his rifle tightly as he looked out at the retreating convoy of cars below the cliff the old factory was situated on. Sitwell didn’t reply. A little off to the side, Wilson and Rogers didn’t look happy, either.
“I think you better just blow the place,” Sitwell said eventually. “I’m on my way out. Pick you up in a bit.”
The sun was coming up by the time they watched one building complex after the next go up in a line of more or less carefully planned explosions. Ash was raining down on their heads and the river below, carried by the morning breeze. Rogers looked like he didn’t quite know what to say when he looked at James.
“You could come with us,” he blurted out eventually and James smirked in reply, cocking his head. Wilson watched them for a while, then took an interest in his shoes and the scratches and scrapes on his arm, where the sleeve had been more or less torn to shreds.
“Come on, Rogers,” James replied, not unkindly. “You know I won’t.”
Rogers took a step towards him, looking down the inch and a half he had on James these days.
The sound of the final explosion mixed with the prattling noise of rotors and cut him off. James turned to see the giant shape of a helicopter rising from below the cliff. He blinked against the morning sun and made out Sitwell’s purple tracksuit in the cockpit.
“Told you I was on my way out,” his voice came through the in-ear and James grinned, ducking a little, hair whipping around his face. “Now cut me some slack, I haven’t flown one of these in years…”
James took a step towards the helicopter, gripping one of the landing skids with his metal hand and hoisting himself up onto it, crouching as he turned back.
The helicopter hovered for another moment and James reached out to pull Rogers in and kiss him. Strands of his hair got caught between their lips, but James smiled into the kiss and Rogers - Steve - brushed his hand across his cheek before the helicopter began to gain height and they let go.
“I lost our car, but I think this is much cooler,” Jasper greeted him when he pulled himself into the helicopter and closed the door. James grunted and, with an exhausted groan, let himself fall into the co-pilot’s seat. Sitwell eyed him up and down before looking down out of the window at Wilson and Rogers making their way off the site. “Am I gonna have to revise my notes on the 1940s?”
“No, I don’t think so,” James replied, leaning back in his seat and letting the exhaustion after the last night settle into his bones. “That was different. I guess it never really occurred to me.” He blinked at the horizon. “Are we following Rumlow?”
“Not much point,” Sitwell sighed, “We’ll probably run out of fuel soon enough. But we know the general direction they took.” He paused. “Plus, I downloaded half a terabyte of their data while you were flipping your hair at Captain America.”
“At least I’ve got hair to flip.”
“Yeah, but I have this instead,” Sitwell replied, flipping him the finger.
They shook Rogers and Wilson off for about a week after the incident at the factory complex, getting a car and taking the grand tour as they circled back towards the east coast. It was quiet, uneventful, and they took turns driving.
“I don’t think there’s much left here,” Jasper said one evening. “The ones we haven’t already busted have packed up and left by now. Or someone else got there first.”
James simply nodded and finished his fries, leaving their hotel room to clear his head once Jasper was getting ready to go to sleep. He wasn’t entirely sure which town they were in, but it was dark and not too cold, and he walked the streets with his hands in the pockets of his jacket.
He found Rogers in a diner, looking relaxed and somewhat bored by the book he was reading. James watched him for a while from the roof across the street before he went back to the hotel to sleep.
When they reached New York, they lingered, just for two, three days at the beginning, until James began to feel like Jasper wasn’t entirely sure where to go from here and he had to admit that he himself didn’t really know, either. He didn’t mind the city, liked walking its streets, although he tended to stay away from Brooklyn if he could help it.
Some nights James walked far enough to find a quiet beach to sit on. Occasionally he stumbled across Steve Rogers and Sam Wilson having dinner somewhere, more often he spotted Rogers sitting alone in a café in Harlem late at night.
After not quite a month Rogers walked into the Harlem café and smiled at James, who sat at a corner table and tried to look inconspicuous. When James left, hours later, Steve caught up to him in the street and kissed him, and again, until James knew he had to get back.
Jasper was snoring loudly and James fell asleep sitting up by the window.
It was a week until James went to find Steve again.
“Did you ever think about what you were going to do after?” James asked, lying flat on his back on Jasper’s unmade bed after a night of restless wandering while Jasper had breakfast at the small table next to the bathroom door. He looked surprised these days to see James in the room when he woke up, even though James always came back.
“Honestly, no,” Jasper replied thoughtfully, swallowing his bite of toast. “I guess part of me hoped you’d kill me before I’d have to think about it.”
“That’s a request, huh,” James smirked, reaching for the gun he still kept tucked in the waistband of his jeans. “Any last words?”
“Don’t kill me, I’ve got so much to give?” Jasper replied dryly and James rolled his eyes. It was quiet for a bit while Jasper finished his breakfast. James had half dozed off when Jasper asked in an attempt at sounding light,
“What about you?”
James stared up at the ceiling.
“I don’t really think ahead,” he eventually said, frowning. “I have no idea what to do next.”
He saw Jasper cock an eyebrow at James’s mismatched socks, one of which was Steve’s, and a thoughtful smile pulled at his lips.
“I think I’m in love with him,” he said quietly, not looking at Jasper. He’d been thinking about it, the way he still didn’t know how to feel about the memories in his head, but how the ones of Steve made him happy somehow, just for having Steve in them.
James stepped out onto the intersection as soon as he’d spotted the car, expression grim and hood pulled up over his hair. They tyres screeched to a halt and James tried his best not to unhinge the door on the passenger’s side by accident when he got in.
“James?” Jasper looked tense.
“And where do you think you’re going?”
Cars behind them began to honk their horns and Jasper shook off his surprise and drove on.
“To California to become a drug lord?” he said, glancing at James. “Why? I thought you were-”
“What?” James glared at him and Jasper’s fingers flexed around the steering wheel.
“You haven’t come back in four nights, I thought...”
“Pull over,” James said, sounding too upset for his own liking, but not as upset as Jasper looked nervous. When the car had come to a halt, he slapped a bunch of papers into Jasper’s lap.
“What are they?” Jasper’s eyes narrowed as he turned over, then widened. “Wh-”
“Yes or no, are you coming with me?”
Jasper leafed through the sheets of paper for a long moment, looked at the small photograph of himself next to a name that wasn’t his own.
“Why?” he asked and James glanced at the papers, shrugging.
“Because I know what I want to do next.”
Sitwell was quiet again.
“He’d come with you, you know,” he said quietly. “If you asked him.”
James sighed, leaning back into his seat and bumped the back of his head into the headrest, closing his eyes.
“But I can’t do this with him. And I think...” he swallowed. “I think Steve understands that.”
James smiled tiredly.
“That half of the days your miserable, cynical, grumpy-ass scumface is literally the only humanity I am capable of understanding.”
He could feel Jasper’s eyes on him and the silence stretched between them. James opened his eyes and glanced over to see Jasper rifle through the papers again. When he looked at James, something was shining in his eyes.
“So what you’re saying is, you love me more than freedom itself.”
James slapped his thigh hard enough to make him yelp.
“I can still murder you,” he threatened in French and Jasper actually laughed.
“Votre accent est terrible,” he replied snootily, putting his hands back on the steering wheel. “What about Steve, though?”
James sighed, then smiled, somewhat bashful and only a little cocky.
“Guess he’ll follow me if he’s at all a gentleman, huh?”
Jasper started the car, looking amused.
“It’s happened before.”