So the Asset had been told over and over again. Even without the mindwipes and the torture, the brainwashing had been perfect in that regard – deep down, he'd been hardwired to know that Hydra would always exist, long after the Asset had outlived its usefulness.
They had made it very clear that he was useful to them, though, so the Asset knew his disappearance wouldn't go unnoticed. Nor unpunished. He had a vague memory of returning late after a mission due to unforeseen weather in the Altai Mountains. His handlers had believed he'd run again. The pain from the punishment that followed still reverberated in his bones, even in cryo sleep and after countless clean-slate wipes. After all the tests of endurance, after all the injuries sustained on missions, and the pain that came with the new programming, that pain still stood out.
He wasn't yet aware of a lot of things, but he knew, deep down, that he'd do anything to never, ever experience that kind of pain again. Awareness didn't come easy, awareness hurt, but even the slivers he experienced now made him not want to give up on it again. That meant running from Hydra.
He was outrunning them for the moment, but he didn't know for how much longer. For the first time, the Asset experienced fatigue. On missions, he'd been fresh out of cryo sleep, rested, ready, pumped full of steroids. If his body threatened to fail after all, there had been enough amphetamines and painkillers in a syringe integrated into his metal arm that Hydra could get him back on his feet with the push of one button.
He was out of cryo for three weeks now and his stash of amphetamines was depleted. Despite Zola's serum, he wasn't healing as fast as he had with the chemically induced rest. He was growing tired and slow and it unsettled him. The Asset didn't know how to feel these things, didn't remember experiencing them. After the wipes, it had been drilled into him again and again. No pain, no fatigue, no hunger, no cold, for him, there was nothing but the mission.
The mission had become blurred, though, images of previous missions superimposing, the original mission directive weakening with the cracks in his armor Captain America had caused.
The Asset had read the file on him. He'd been to the exhibit at the Smithsonian. He'd seen the pictures of the man Captain America had once called his best friend. Captain America had called him by that name and it had opened a floodgate that had washed away parts of his programming, washed away the simplicity of following orders and left behind a mess of disjointed flashes of memory and feelings that the Asset hadn't experienced in 70 years.
James Buchanan Barnes. Bucky.
The nickname tasted wrong when he tried it in the dark Washington alley where he finally collapsed.
It still tasted wrong weeks later.
It was that which hurt the most, though he could trace the hurt easily enough, since the books were among the first things he'd bought for himself after he was given his own place by SHIELD. Most everything else was provided.
Steve ran his gaze over the wreckage of his apartment, taking in overturned furniture, smashed mugs and his torn apart record player. Books with their spines cut open, torn out leaves fluttering in the light draft coming in through the open door. A hole in the wall behind his reading chair. The now brown and dried stains of Nick's blood on the beige carpet. Three slugs, but just one hole. Bucky had always been a precise shooter.
"Looks like somebody had a party here," a familiar voice behind him said.
Steve flinched and looked over his shoulder to find Sam standing in the doorway. He seemed a little wide-eyed at the amount of damage done to Steve's place.
"About the only thing that annoys me is that the letters I received from kids after the exhibit opened are gone." When Sam started to smile, no doubt thinking that the kid's fanmail must be stroking his ego, Steve added, "I hadn't got around to answering them. The rest," he shrugged and indicated the apartment. "Most of it was provided by SHIELD anyway." He'd bought enough things on his own as well, but none of them held any real sentimental value except for a picture of him and Natasha and a postcard from Bruce that he'd miss, but he wasn't ready to tell Sam about them.
Sam clapped a hand on his shoulder, squeezing, hard and sympathetic, just once. "Well, in that case you can come and help me pack."
Steve frowned and turned to him. "What?"
"Think you're moving alone?" Sam said, narrowing his eyes at Steve.
"Sam – "
"Don't give me that look. I told you I'm in this with you, man. I know you haven't known me all that long, but I tend to mean what I say."
Steve shifted, feeling uncomfortable in the face of what Sam was giving up for him. "But your work here – "
"There are VA groups in New York as well. Besides," he shrugged. "I've been in DC too long. And let's not forget that it'll make my Mama happy."
"You have family in New York?"
"Yeah," Sam answered. He clapped a hand to Steve's shoulder. "Come on. We've got phone calls to make. Plus, we're going to need boxes. Grab what you want and we'll head back to my place."
He needed to remember.
Programming insisted the Asset return to Hydra for new orders, but his programming had broken down as the helicarriers plunged into the Potomac and he'd dived into the dirty water to drag out the man from the bridge. Captain America.
Captain America had been his target. His mission. An enemy of Hydra. The Asset had shot him, but then stopped short of killing him. He didn't know why he hadn't let him die. He hadn't wanted to do that, though. He'd never wanted anything before. Want wasn't allowed; need only applied to missions. He'd broken protocol. He kept breaking protocol once he reached the first safehouse and learned Pierce was dead and Hydra in chaos.
The Asset had no real memories of being the man Captain America called him, though he had James Buchanan Barnes' face. It had been enough to keep Captain America from fighting him, though, once the man had completed his mission.
Maybe it would be enough to persuade Captain America to help the Winter Soldier stay free of Hydra.
The man in the newsreels with Captain America had smiled and laughed and been at ease in his skin. The Asset didn't think he could be that man. He half wondered if this wasn't some new training, some new way for his handlers to twist his mind, but dismissed the thought. They weren't that subtle with him. They no longer tried to convince him to think their way; they simply took away any part of him that thought rather than obeyed. He'd given in to the inevitability of it eventually. There was no escape, no defeating them.
The man from the bridge had at least stopped them for a time and as a result the Asset had a window of opportunity.
Something had sparked in him when the man had fallen. He'd fallen once.
Diving in after Captain America hadn't been a conscious choice, but leaving his mission target alive and walking away had been. It had been the first choice the Asset had made in his memory.
He'd disobeyed his handlers and the programming and gotten away with it. He'd decided he wouldn't go back to them, to the pain and the wipes and the cold cryo sleep that had settled in his bones and left him shivering even in the bright sunlight. If he wanted to stay free, though, he would need a plan. Hydra's tentacles were everywhere.
The Asset was unsure, something new to him, though with as little memory as he retained, everything was new. Or should have seemed that way. But while the Asset could not remember specifics or himself, he knew a wealth of things. He spoke a dozen languages flawlessly. Could read and write in them as well. He could drive a car or a truck or a motorcycle, he knew he could pilot a boat or a plane. He was intimately acquainted with current and past military hardware, able to use and maintain it. He knew how to use a computer and how to hack one as part of a mission. He could dance, seduce and suborn when necessary to infiltrate as part of a mission. He could perform advanced first aid in order to maintain his body at mission performance levels. He knew how to stay off the grid and under the radar, to become one of the nameless, faceless underclass that average people don't let themselves register. All of those things, he understood he could do, but he had not one memory of himself doing so.
All of him had been wiped away and what was left were smears of color, scents that prompted sudden and nearly overwhelming reactions, noises that were too loud, too close inside his head. Emotions, he thought, like the baffled anger that had threatened to explode through him when he found the Smithsonian exhibition on Captain America and the pictures of the man whose face he wore. The Asset thought it was that way: he had James Buchanan Barnes' face, for Barnes had lived and died before the Asset was created. Each time the Asset tried to tell himself he was Bucky Barnes, his programming rebelled, but more than that so did some part of himself.
He didn't know how much of SHIELD's infrastructure had been left in the wake of the fall of the Triskelion. The organization had spread across international borders as perniciously as Hydra did. The Hub might be functional, there were bases and secret bases and safehouses and the original helicarrier somewhere over the Atlantic. All of those remained and whether they were in SHIELD control, Hydra or some other organizations, they possessed technology to hunt a rogue asset.
The Asset considered whether he liked that designation. It certainly fit. He was out of control.
What was left of Hydra would be hunting him by now, as would every intelligence and police agency in the Western world, with the Third World and the Asias no doubt wanting their chance at making the Winter Soldier their weapon or just exacting revenge for whatever damage he'd inflicted on them in the past. He had no allies and no covers. He couldn't be sure his face hadn't been recorded at some point in the last week and spread far and wide as an enemy of the state. No, even if his arm hadn't made passing security for air or train travel difficult, he couldn't afford to show his face. Facial recognition algorithms and tracking would result in him walking off any fast transport straight into an ambush.
That left the road, either in a vehicle or on foot. He could steal a vehicle, but he'd need to abandon it relatively swiftly and obtain another and that would leave behind a pattern easily analyzed to point toward his objective. Hydra had contacts in most police forces, where they hadn't infiltrated and taken over entirely.
He would stay on foot and continue keeping as low a profile as possible. It would take longer to get away from DC, but he needed to figure out where he was going anyway. Blind running would eventually run him right into a Hydra trap.
The Asset wasn't in optimum condition. The fight with Captain America (he knew him) had left him with a dislocated shoulder, deep bruising, and broken ribs. The dive into the Potomac had left him dirty and chilled, with enough water in his lungs that he'd spent two days coughing before his enhanced metabolism had beaten off whatever he'd picked up from the water. He'd reset the shoulder once he'd gotten rid of the Hydra agent at the safehouse and ignored the flare of pain from his ribs with each cough. All the obvious wounds were healed enough he was operational, but he felt weak.
Before, he'd either performed his mission and returned to cryo before his body burned enough fuel to require nourishment. On the occasions he remained out longer, his handlers would provide a tasteless nutrition mush according to a schedule. There had been missions in which he operated outside direct control and had to sustain himself on sustenance gathered in the field. He knew he had to eat. He couldn't remember doing it though and was so used to ignoring the messages from his body that it had been easy to forego for too long.
His legs were tired as he walked along the road. The Asset reflected that he would need to sleep sometime within the next forty-eight hours or suffer mental and physiological degradation due to deprivation. He'd already resorted to the amphetamine boosters stored within the Arm. Any further use was contraindicated until his body recovered. He wasn't sure if he could become physically addicted to any drugs, but he could suffer the side effects and consequences of over use.
Further impairment of his already sub-optimum logical processing went against his instincts and his programming.
He still wore the combat boots he'd gone into the river with and the leather had dried stiff and too tight. He'd need to replace them, because if he went much longer, boot rot would set in, and one of the blisters forming on his feet would become infected. A flicker of something, of clumsily trying to unknot swollen laces and pry frozen feet from muddy boots made the Asset stumble. There had been a small fire and he tried to warm his feet and dry the only socks he had. The weak flames hadn't offered more than a tease of heat, promising warmth if he only pressed closer, until the stinking wool of his socks hissed and started to burn. Cold rain ran down the back of his neck and under his uniform.
The Asset shook his head. The memory could have come from any mission in his past. He didn't know. It didn't mean anything.
He pushed his strides longer. He needed to cover enough ground to reach another urban center big enough he could spend the night in one of its gritty, abandoned spaces. Gravel turned under his ankle, but he ignored the quick stab of pain. He didn't like the exposure of walking beside the road, though he'd disguised himself enough he knew no one would see anything memorable about it.
The traffic flowing by inundated in warm waves of exhaust fumes and grit that stuck on his skin and in his already greasy hair. If he didn't want to cross the line from ignorable to unpleasantly odorous enough to notice, he would have to obtain fresh clothes and wash. He remembered being hosed down with cold water and industrial grade soap after coming out of cryo. It wasn't pleasant. The vague consideration that most human beings maintained their hygiene without handlers occurred to him and with it came the idea of baths and showers. His face itched and he added shaving to his list of necessities. In some countries, beards were common enough he could have gone with letting his grow and blur out some of his facial features, but the Asset had observed most American men shaved or at least maintained their facial hair.
He could always shave with one of his knives. The Asset had no intention of allowing anyone close to his throat with a razor blade.
He kept his head up, despite the desire to hunch his shoulders and duck his head, as he walked. Maintaining situational awareness remained a priority.
Because of that, he noted the sound of a semi truck slowing speed even before it pulled off the pavement ahead of him with a chuff of its air brakes.
The Asset paused and calculated how fast he could make it off the road shoulder, over the wire fence and into the field paralleling the road. Cover was minimal. Engaging any attack at close quarters would provide better odds and a retreat across the lanes of traffic would slow pursuit, though he knew any Hydra agents would not hesitate over inflicting collateral casualties, whether they had come to kill or retrieve him.
The truck's driver leaned out his open window. "C'mon, then, unless you like walking."
The Asset re-evaluated. The container trailer was secured by a padlock on the outside and he could hear nothing from within it as he approached. The driver displayed none of the tells of a spec ops veteran or the nerves of a coerced civilian. Apparently, he had assumed the Asset was hitchhiking.
Once the Asset had climbed into the passenger seat of the big rig, the driver gave him a curious look before smoothly merging the truck back into traffic. "Going far as Philly. That good for you?"
"Yes," the Asset replied after an awkward pause made him realize the driver expected an answer. He'd been used for overt assassinations for so many missions his covert training had slipped. He had no briefing background to use as a base for his responses in a conversation.
Luckily the driver seemed unbothered by his laconic answer.
He studied the driver quietly after that, taking in the beer gut lapping over his belt, the flannel shirt worn over a white singlet, the dogtags hanging tangled in a tuft of graying chest hair that matched the thinning buzzcut and salt-and-pepper brows and beard. A wedding ring, plain and worn, adorned one hand, sunk deep enough the Asset wondered if the man could even get it off over the enlarged joints of his finger. He placed the man in his mid to late sixties and his war as Vietnam. A pair of yellow tinted sunglasses sat on the truck's dash. An insulated cup filled with coffee from the scent wafting from it sat in a holder next to the CB.
Satisfied the man was what he seemed and not a threat in disguise, the Asset let himself sink into the seat and shifted his attention to the side mirror to check they weren't being tailed.
"You decided what you see is what you get yet, son?"
The Asset considered and nodded.
"Good enough." The driver put the sunglasses on and shifted the truck with the ease of decades’ experience, keeping a cautious distance behind the vehicles ahead of them without resorting to the brakes.
"My name's Lonnie." He waited a beat then shrugged when the Asset didn't respond. "Coffee in the thermos there. Make it myself. Sandwiches too. Saves money and it isn't like I can swing this thing through a drive thru." He patted the dashboard. "Been giving folks rides for thirty years. Screw my insurance carrier. Only time I ever been mugged was when I parked to go in and get a meal outside Baltimore."
The Asset considered the coffee, since it was a stimulant, but the uneasy twist to his stomach warned him away from trying it. This Samaritan wouldn't appreciate him vomiting in his truck cab.
"Sure you're not hungry? 'Cause, son, you sure look like you could use something to eat."
The Asset ducked his head so his hair fell forward. He shook his head.
"Okay. You mind handing me one of those sandwiches?"
The Asset opened the insulated cooler bag the driver indicated and handed him a random sandwich from the stack inside.
"You change your mind, help yourself."
He nodded and found the response expected. "Thanks."
"Well, go on, lean back, close your eyes if you feel like it, I know sometimes a man just don't feel like talking."
Lonnie proved true to his word, steering the big rig north without saying much of anything beyond a muttered sonovabitch when a Mercedes stitching through traffic cut him off sharp enough he had to hit the brakes. The Asset slumped down in the seat and sank into a half-sleep that conserved energy while remaining aware enough to protect himself. Any change in Lonnie's breathing would have snapped him fully awake, but the miles passed until Lonnie steered onto an off-ramp.
He explained as the Asset sat up, looking around warily for a reason they were leaving the freeway. "Gonna shift over to the old highway. Takes me straight into where I'm delivering this load. Easier than dealing with the big exchange and backtracking on surface streets." He tapped his nose. "I know every route between Portland and Pensacola."
The Asset relaxed a fraction.
"Listen, son, I don't know what you're running from, maybe you ain't even running, just ain't got no place to go – "
He tensed and contemplated throwing open the door and leaping from the truck. At it's present rate of speed, if he used the Arm to absorb most of force, he could exit without breaking any bones. He would need to do so in the next forty-six seconds, before Lonnie brought the big rig back up to the speed limit.
"Easy there," Lonnie said. The speed of the truck didn't vary and his eyes stayed on the road. The Asset was impressed by his situational awareness, considering. "Was just gonna say, there's a decent shelter along here. Good place to stay the night, got security so you don't get mugged going in or out. They know me there; I bring a load of donations by once a month. You tell 'em Lonnie steered you there, they'll set you up with three hots and a cot and ya won't even be behind bars."
There had been bars closing off part of the bank vault where Hydra had set up the Asset's cryo unit and the wipe apparatus. The Asset assumed it was all still there. He hadn't reported back. No bars sounded good.
Lonnie went on, "I know, even the libraries now, you gotta have a card to use the computers, but this place, they got a couple of donated laptops and wi-fi. They'll show ya how to use 'em, find ya a place or a job, family or a friend if you don't know how to look 'em up."
Intel, the Asset realized. He was moving almost blindly. Intel would keep him away from Hydra and help him find his target. Plus food and a place to rest where no one would ask more than a first name, nor care if it was false. Once he knew more, he could formulate a better mission directive for himself.
The goal of staying out of Hydra's hands wouldn't change, but he needed a better strategy than simply moving away from the last location they had him in. He had a non-memory where the idea of doing that should have been. He could sense something had been wiped and suspected he'd done something similar at least once before.
He shuddered at the thought that he might be unknowingly repeating the same pattern over and over, that if he failed, he wouldn't know and might repeat it again, never remembering.
"You okay, son?"
"Can you drop me there?" the Asset asked. "The shelter?"
"I'd be clam happy to do that," Lonnie assured him.
The Asset repeated that. Clam happy? That sounded strange.
"We'll be there in about an hour. Early enough for you to get a bed no problem."
The Asset nodded. That would be good, though he would only sleep lightly in such a place. It would provide protection from the elements and any questions prompted by a man who stayed out in them. "Thank you," he offered with rusty politeness.
"My pleasure, son. A man once gave me a ride when I had nothing but the clothes on my back. If he hadn't... well, maybe I wouldn't be here, wouldn't've met my wife, wouldn't've had my kids." Lonnie tapped a laminated photo taped to the dashboard. The Asset had noted it but not studied the faces there, a woman the same age as Lonnie, three adults who shared their merged features, two adolescents with a mild family resemblance.
Curious for the first time, the Asset asked, "Did the man ask you to pick up people too?"
Lonnie laughed, a belly-jiggling, deep laughter that made the Asset's mouth lift at the corners. He slapped his leg next.
"Hell, no. Bastard wanted me to give 'em a BJ in the backseat and when I socked him one, he left me by the side of the road in the middle of nowhere. That's where Marie, my wife – she wasn't my wife then – found me."
"Why do you – ?"
"Every fella like you I give a ride, that's someone that ain't getting one from some guy like him," Lonnie explained. He glanced at the Asset kindly. "Don't know if it was the Lord looking out for me that day or if I just got lucky. Don't matter. When I do someone a good turn, I feel good about myself. That's all it is."
It made no sense in the framework of Hydra's actions and beliefs. But the Asset had already abandoned Hydra. This was worth thinking about.
Miles passed in silence after that, until Lonnie began shifting down, slowing the truck to a stop at a red light.
"Shelter's on the next block up. Ain't no parking along here, so if you could pile out at the next stop – "
"Yes," the Asset agreed. If the truck was under surveillance from a distance (and he had been watching the mirrors for tails but seen none close), they might miss his exit. Lonnie had been an excellent travelling companion. "I can do that."
One hand on the steering wheel, Lonnie lifted one butt cheek off the seat and pulled a worn and flattened leather wallet from a rear pocket. One-handed, he opened it and fingered out two twenties, leaving one behind. The wallet went onto the dashboard and he held out the cash to the Asset.
"What are you doing?" the Asset asked. He'd already considered and rejected stealing from Lonnie. Something under his breast bone had twisted and told him that would be wrong. He had no mission, no priority that would make it acceptable.
"You take this."
Lonnie chuckled. "Proud, ain't ya? Listen, I don't give money to charity. I give it to people."
"But – "
"I ain't gonna go hungry without it."
The Asset decided it would be foolish to refuse the money when it could save him chancing something riskier when he needed it.
Traffic ahead of the truck began slowing, brake lights flashing brighter.
"Good luck to ya, son," Lonnie said as he braked the truck to a smooth stop behind a line of cars waiting for the light to change.
"You too," the Asset said, surprising himself. He opened the door and jumped out, landing on the pavement lightly. He thought that sooner or later, Lonnie would pick up someone like the one who had picked him up. He was old and getting older. He wouldn't be able to fight back even against someone much less dangerous than the Asset. He pushed the passenger door closed firmly and slipped away between to parked vehicles. The temptation to watch Lonnie's truck roll away up the road tugged at him briefly, but he kept his attention on his surroundings, searching for any sign of someone paying to much attention to him.
When a trickle of men and women began making their way through the doors, the Asset jumped to the roof of another building, broke the lock on the door to its top floor, and made his way out through its loading dock. He circled the block another time before approaching the shelter.
He clocked every threat and exit as soon as he came through the door, taking in the cafeteria tables with benches, the flickering fluorescent light fixtures above, the linoleum and stainless and the walls painted a faded shade of avocado and tan after registering the people and the lack of cameras. The Asset was disturbed by the number of children he saw at the tables or in a corner that had clearly been designated as a play area and stocked with worn toys. It wasn't hard to pick out the staff from the other adults either: the haircuts gave them away. A squat Latino man in a guayabera shirt and slacks sat on a metal chair watching everyone. A taser was strapped to his belt and an ID with a badge dangled from the shirt's collar. The Asset doubted he could provide any protection in an assault, but a homeless shelter wouldn't be able to operate with heavier security; the people it wanted to serve would stay far away.
"Hello, I'm Macy," the woman at the front counter greeted him. The Asset had already dismissed her threat potential. She was in her fifties, overweight, frizzy red hair threaded with white, dressed for comfort over style, catseye glasses perched on her freckled nose, with a small but genuine smile on her face. Her hands and fingernails were impeccably clean and neatly kept.
He nodded to her awkwardly.
"Are you new?" she asked. "I volunteer four days a week here and I haven't seen you."
He shrugged and nodded again.
"Well, we only have a few rules. No drugs, no alcohol, no stealing, no fighting."
"Okay," he said. He was surprised she hadn't said no weapons, then wondered how many people would lie about it. Most, he decided; he would. The weapons themselves weren't a problem anyway. It was what was done with them and 'no fighting' would cover that. Theoretically.
"How did you find us?" Macy asked. Worry creased her features. The Asset hadn't moved and he wondered if she was frightened of him. Could she sense the leashed violence beneath his skin? He could kill everyone in the shelter before the Latino could put his hand on that taser, leave everyone tossed down like broken dolls in pools of spreading blood. A flash of a mission, an object lesson in Romania made the Asset wince.
He pushed the flicker of memory away, remembering wanting the wipe that time, and answered her as briefly as he could. Sweat chilled his back and his head ached along with his stomach. "Lonnie?"
She nodded, smiling widely, and gestured the Asset closer to the counter. "Alonzo Jenkins. He brings a truck full of donated goods, food, clothes, and a big check every month. And sometimes someone, too. He's never wrong."
The Asset drew his eyebrows together and wondered what she meant.
"We'll get you set up with a bed and do you want a shower? Do you need clothes? And dinner, of course," Macy said. She plucked a pen from a mug holding several and pushed a ledger across the counter toward him. "You can sign in, it's just to keep track of how many beds are already taken for the night."
"You want a name."
"Just pick one, honey," she advised him.
The man from the helicarrier had called him Buck and Bucky and said, 'Your name is James Buchanan Barnes.' The Smithsonian exhibition had shown pictures and film of a man who shared the Asset's face. The Asset didn't remember being him. Only the last mission, since the last wipe was clear. Everything else was fragments, shattered pieces that didn't fit together into any kind of picture, and a whirl of confusing emotions he didn't understand then or now. The man in the blue uniform wouldn't fight him, told him to finish his mission, and the Asset hesitated. He hesitated, hearing himself say the words the man said to him, and then the failing helicarrier lurched, tearing itself to pieces, and the man fell.
The Asset fell.
The man fell.
He jumped after the falling man.
He'd dived deep into the river and dragged his mission to the shore, stood and watched to see him breathe, then left him bleeding. He'd failed his mission, knowing he'd be punished.
Only he hadn't been, because Project Insight had failed too, lay in smoking wreckage, the Triskelion shattered.
He picked up the pen. His fingers tightened on the cheap plastic, threatened to snap it in two. He was the Asset. He was Hydra's weapon. No. He'd walked away. He'd made a choice that wasn't part of a mission.
Bucky, the blond man on the causeway had said. The Asset didn't know who Bucky was. His head ached badly. The techs had been in too much of hurry, the wipe sloppy. He remembered staring at Pierce. 'But I knew him,' he'd said. So they'd wiped him again.
"Are you okay, honey?" Macy asked.
He nodded jerkily. He didn't remember Bucky. He wrote James and added Green because it wasn't as obvious an alias as Smith or Doe and the walls were an awful shade of it.
Hours later, he was cleaner, dressed in donated clothes, the twenty dollar bill Lonnie gave him hidden in his boot in the sheath to one of his knives. He'd thrown up the food served as dinner, but had a bottle of water now, as he sat at one of the shelter's out-dated laptops, accessing everything he could on what had happened in DC according to the news media and the social media sphere. He moved on from there to hacking into police and federal databases, routing the inquiries through proxies run by Hydra to conceal his location. He didn't remember learning how to do any of that, but the skill surfaced as soon as he opened the laptop.
The man on the helicarrier was Captain America, the same man lauded so respectfully in the Air and Space Museum's exhibit at the Smithsonian. He'd been frozen for over seventy years and then revived, the how and why were hidden by walls of classification the Asset – James, he whispered to himself to low for anyone else to hear, James – couldn't crack without a better computer. He was still alive, too; picked up by a rescue team from a Coast Guard boat and taken to a hospital according to reports filed after the fall of SHIELD.
SHIELD had been gutted, not just by the destruction of the helicarriers and the Triskelion, but by a security breach that had flooded the Internet with everything the agency had known and kept hidden. Much of it was also Hydra intelligence. The agency could have survived the physical destruction visited on it, there were other bases and it was much more than its headquarters on the Potomac. But the security breach revealed how completely and totally Hydra had compromised it and set off something like a civil war within the ranks of its survivors, between SHIELD's loyal agents and the Hydra sleepers and moles threaded through it like a cancer that had metastasized beyond treatment.
The Asset skimmed as much as he could using keywords, but had to stop when his eyes began to blur. His corrupted programming kept insisting he return to base and report. Only the knowledge of what would wait for him and the possibility that the Hydra base had been blown made it possible to ignore the compulsion. It wasn't as strong as it had been in the first hours after the blown mission, though.
The stronger he became, the more he thought for himself, even when it sent a stab of pain through the space behind his eyes, the easier it was to over-ride the programming.
He knew now, though, that Hydra wasn't destroyed. It had been dealt a brutal blow, but much of it was still out there and it would never give up.
Hydra would be coming for him, sooner or later.
He cleared the computer's search history and closed it, before returning to the bed he'd been assigned. He didn't sleep, but lying still allowed him to rest his body at least.
In the morning there was oatmeal, a glutinous porridge with little taste, that James ate cautiously, grateful when his body didn't rebel against it the way it had dinner.
He used the laptop once more, searching for where Captain America was now. Official sources were locked up tight. James found the man through Instagram and Tumblr and Twitter. The public couldn't get enough of taking pictures of Captain America, wherever they saw him. The Asset studied not just the pictures, but the posted times and locations, then used a visual recognition search app to identify the places in the backgrounds of the pictures posted over a sequence of times. Within three hours, he knew Captain America was in New York, living in the Stark Tower, and ran every morning in Central Park.
If the Asset – James, he repeated to himself, James - wanted to approach him, and he wasn't sure yet, that would be his window of opportunity. Getting into Stark Tower wasn't impossible, but would require resources he no longer had access to.
If he didn't contact Captain America, New York was still a good choice to go to ground. The populace there was packed so tight they'd learned to ignore each other. Even a man with a shiny metal arm could become lost in the crowd. Just one James among thousands of others.
He told Macy he'd found someone who would take him in so she wouldn't wonder about him after he left and set out the next day.
Sam considered himself a steady person, and still, meeting Steve had already had him a bit starstruck. Meeting Natasha only minutes later, and then having them both show up at his doorstep a few days later, had been both amazing and a little intimidating. But Iron Man... even his Mama approved of Iron Man, and that was saying something. And now Iron Man was calling Steve. Sam wiped the grin from his face and adopted a cool face. A little composure, Wilson.
Steve certainly had it when he didn't rise to the bait at all and asked, "Do you have the data I asked you for?"
"Are you always this disgustingly straight-forward?"
Steve didn't react.
"You could have told me you're en route to New York," Stark said, sounding a little hurt.
"Why, would you have thrown me a welcome party?"
"We're partners in avenging now, Rogers, of course I would have. Apple pie, blue, red and white balloons and all."
"Tony," Steve said. From the corner of his eye, Sam saw him run a hand over his face.
"You do remember that the guy tried to kill you, right?"
"If you don't want to help, just say so – "
"Touchy," Stark interrupted Steve. He exhaled, something that was closer to an actual sigh than exasperation to Sam's ears. "Jarvis is looking for your assassin buddy."
Before Steve could say thank you, Stark waltzed on, "And since he is, you should come by the tower. Pepper will be upset if you're in town and don't swing by."
"Pepper?" Steve echoed.
"Yeah, remember, gorgeous woman who lives with me and keeps me out of trouble in social situations?"
"I know who Pepper is." Steve was definitely rolling his eyes now, even if Sam couldn't see it. "I have just never met her, so why –"
"Maybe she and Coulson swapped trading cards. Who knows. She wants to meet you, that's all I need to know. And please, do imagine the last sentence in her voice, because that was exactly the answer I got when I asked her why she wants to meet other men."
Sam gave into the urge to look at Steve and raise his eyebrows. Steve managed to look embarrassed and annoyed at the same time, something Sam was sure only Steve Rogers managed with such excellence.
"We have an appointment with a rental agent, but maybe – "
"Rental agent?" Stark asked, not letting Steve finish his sentence once more. "And who's we?"
Steve huffed. "Sam and I need a place to live, and – "
"Sam and I?" Something like a whistle came through the line. "You never talk to me anymore, Steven. You even forget to tell me about your girlfriend."
"Boyfriend?" Stark asked without missing a beat. "We really haven't talked in a while."
"We never talk," Steve said, exasperated, while Sam had an actual coughing fit. Not that he hadn't had an experimental phase in college, but Steve? Thanks, but no thanks. Sam preferred him as a friend, not as a boyfriend. Too many issues by far.
"Now you're hurting my feelings." Stark actually managed to sell the emotional manipulation and sound dejected.
"Tony, just, the data, please?"
"You're not even going to introduce us?"
Sam decided to have pity on Steve. "Sam Wilson," he said, turning his face toward where he hoped the rental's mic was. "It's an honor to meet you, Mr. Stark."
"Hey, Icarus," Stark said. "Natasha tells me you're rather handy to have around in a crunch."
"Did she?" Sam asked, feeling a small pleased smile tip up the corners of his mouth.
"No, I'm just trying to make small-talk. Pepper tells me it's handy to be nice to people every once in a while."
Sam's smile fell.
"Is that what you're doing?" Steve asked, sarcasm dripping from his words.
"No, what I'm doing is making sure your appointment with your rental agent gets canceled while I'm talking to you."
"Sam, my man," Stark said, "don't let Captain Killjoy persuade you to live in some cockroach and bedbug ridden hellhole."
"Tony, you can't just – "
"You already have apartments in the tower," Stark talked over Steve's protest. "They're rent free, secure from Hydra or anyone else, the assistants just put fresh linen spray on the pillows and I can have them leave chocolate there as well, and besides, Birdie, you need to come to the tower anyway, so I can customize the specs for your new wings. I hear yours are a little clipped right now."
Tony Stark was offering them to live at his place and build Sam new wings? Sam felt the urge to pinch himself.
"Tony, I'm serious, you can't – "
"What's that, Jarvis? Static on the line? Connection dropping? Could that be because Captain Rogers still refuses to have a Starkphone?"
Sam bit back on a grin.
"I won't let you steamroller all over me like that," Steve said, crossing his arms over his chest and lifting his chin.
Sam shook his head and switched lanes to move toward Stark Tower. He liked Steve, he really did, but that misplaced pride thing got old really fast. Besides, dude, Iron Man just offered them to come live in his tower! If Steve wanted to be an idiot, fine, but Sam wasn't going to be. "Do what you want, Steve, but I'm not going to live in a shitty hotel while apartment hunting and waste money and time that could be spent searching for the Winter Soldier when a free place is on offer. You wanna be an idiot? Fine. Don't let the bed bugs bite."
"You two really did get married, didn't you?" Stark asked.
"No," Steve and Sam chorused.
"Pity," Stark said. "Maybe a good lay would have loosened him up a bit. Anyway. I like you, Sam. I could use someone to tell me a bit more than the censored version about the whole Winter Soldier thing. Besides, the Avengers are down several people with Natasha off finding herself, Thor incommunicado and Clint missing."
Steve straightened in his seat. "Clint's missing?"
"I could tell you all about that, but you'd have to be here for that. Because, oh, dear, that bad connection... "
"Where and when?" Sam asked to stop another round of bitching before it started.
"You're exactly twenty-five minutes out, tell the staff to move your stuff to the 15th floor, then come up. And if you can get our Star-Spangledness with you, I'll get you a second pair of wings."
The line went dead and Sam felt a little dazed. He took a sip of the coke he'd bought at a service station earlier when they'd stopped for gas. "Is he always like that?" he asked.
Steve leaned back in his seat and ran a hand through his hair. "I haven't actually known him for that long, but if he takes after his father? Then, oh, God, yes."
People who didn't feel the need to hide or didn't register the danger were even easier to track. All it took James to find Captain America's running trail through Central Park was following a few hashtags on Twitter and tags called #CAspotted! on Tumblr had a detailed account of where Captain America was seen, what he was wearing and even his fluctuating daily running speed. Being a New York City hero had its downsides when it came to anonymity. James already knew that Captain America was wearing a green hoodie this morning, hood drawn up against the grey drizzle and was using the path toward Cherry Hill. It'd be another fifteen minutes before he'd reach Wagner Cove. Time enough to decide if he really wanted to meet the man or not.
The scent of boiled sausages wafting over from a hot dog vendor caught James' attention and made his mouth water. His last meal had been the kasha at the homeless shelter. That had been when, last morning? He drifted closer to the vendor and watched him turn just a few hot dogs on the grill. It was barely eight o'clock, so it must be too early for normal business, but judging from the fact that he was set up in a pretty remote part of the park and still got hot dogs ready pointed toward him having regulars. One of the sausages broke when the vendor was turning it and he cursed in what sounded like colorful Polish. James stifled a chuckle, but not quickly enough for the vendor to miss.
An embarrassed grin flickered over the vendor's face. "No good quality sausages to be found here," he commented. "I mean, don't get me wrong, they taste okay, but they're more fragile than an eggshell."
James didn't go to the trouble of reminding him that, unbroken, eggshells were structurally far stronger than many other materials. "Nothing beats a good Kielbasa," he replied and inflected a hint of a Polish accent into his voice.
The vendor's grin turned from embarrassed to bright. "Damn straight," he said. His gaze swept over James' clothes and a thoughtful expression took the place of the grin. "Hey, are you interested?" he raised half of the broken sausage. "Free of charge, topping of your choice."
James hesitated for a second, paranoia running deep, then ignored his vigilance in favor of his stomach. The vendor was small, round and red-faced, probably ate badly and was a heart attack waiting to happen. Hydra never would have picked him to work for them, besides, even for Hydra, the set-up would be too random. "Sure," James answered. "Why not?"
He was just bending over to inspect the toppings when the smell of fried onions caused a shift in his entire vision.
Suddenly he was on Coney Island, out of breath after racing to a hot dog vendor with the money he'd just taken off the guy who had tried to beat up Steve. He was buying a Nathan's for the two of them, brown mustard and tomato-paste sautéed onions and handing it to Steve. Steve grinned from under a bloodied nose and bit into the hot dog, grinned at Bucky as if they'd just successfully finished a heist, mustard and grease smeared on his cheek and upper lip…
"Hey, man, you okay?"
James dug his heels in to stop the ground from swaying. He swept his human hand over his face and shook his head against the vertigo. "Fine. It's just been a while since I last had one of these."
Something stirred in him and he fought against a hollow laugh trying to bubble up at the understatement of his words.
The vendor's look shifted from concern to pity. "There's a shelter not too far from here if you –"
"No need," James answered. "I'm just passing through."
"If you're sure." The vendor sounded doubtful and he handed over the hot dog.
"Sure," James answered and forced a smile back on his face. "Thanks for this."
He felt the man's gaze follow him as he walked back toward Wagner Cove.
The drizzle that was steadily falling wasn't quite rain yet but no longer a thick fog. It crept underneath the sweatshirt the lady at the homeless shelter had given him and up under the legs of the jeans that were a size too big for him so he was glad the hot dog was still warm when he reached the pavilion-like shelter down by the Lake. He used to be impervious to such minor things as temperature. Today, he shivered in the damp early morning cold that reminded him too much of the early stages of cryo; of icy tendrils wrapping around his limbs, pulling him under until there was nothing. He straightened his back against the hunched posture he'd adopted against the chill. This wouldn't do. He couldn't grow soft now, not when Hydra was on his tail and tried to get him back.
Something warm and moist touched his fingers. Looking down, he realized that he'd closed his hand around the hot dog tight enough the mustard had squelched out of the bun. James relaxed his hand and surveyed the mess. According to Tumblr user #iheartcap, Captain America took a break here for the last several mornings to enjoy the view, meaning that James had a few more minutes before Captain America would appear. If James really decided to talk to him, he wanted to have both hands free.
His growling stomach protested the idea of throwing the squished hot dog away, so he took several great, hurried bites and tried not to breathe in the scent too deeply. He had no idea what had happened up at the vendor's earlier, but it unsettled him. Scent could trigger memories, he'd used it in interrogations himself.
That hadn't been his memory, though. The Asset had never been to an amusement park. James had never eaten hot dogs. Yet the images had been as vivid as if he'd been there after all. He could almost hear the music from the carousels and the screams from the rollercoaster and stomped down on the images and sounds hard. He had to focus, damn it. Trying to chew and swallow at the same time, the soft white bun seemed to turn stale. The sausage turned out even greasier than it had looked on the grill. The mingled smell of fried onions and mustard along with the meaty smell of the sausage wormed its way up his nose and he choked, nausea and revulsion hitting him so hard that he brought up everything he'd just swallowed.
James hadn't eaten all that much yet, but the heaving went on and on, as if his programming was rebelling, his body was rejecting everything he'd offered it. His metal hand clamped around the railing of the shelter, the other one wrapped around his hair to keep it out of his face, he bent over the railing and coughed and spit against the taste of vomit and bile. Renewed vertigo hit him hard and he closed his eyes.
He remembered carousel music and someone throwing up. The smell of the ocean, sweat, hotdogs and onions, puke in the gutter... He'd swallowed and swallowed and swallowed, had planted his feet on the ground and held on until the urge to vomit too receded. He wasn't going to lose his lunch. His companion looked up, glaring and still green at the gills, muttering, "I hate you," and he could only grin back, replying, "No, you don't." He groped for more, wanted the rest of the memory, the sense of warmth and affection he'd felt, but all he could see was the funhouse mirror over his friend's shoulder and his own face, distorted in the warped glass, splintering... and he heaved again, bringing up nothing but bile.
James pushed back from the railing, gulped in a huge breath of air and opened his eyes to realign with the here and now and snap himself out of the dizzying flashback.
He didn't see the shot fired at him coming; only his good hearing, instinct and muscle memory made him duck in time to avoid getting hit. The tranq dart quivered in the ceiling beam when James looked up through the hair that had fallen back over his face.
A man in a badly faked NYPD uniform walked up to the shelter. "Better for all of us if you come with us come with us freely."
James heard the safety being released from at least 15 other guns.
He wiped the back of his hand over his mouth and cursed.
Hydra had found him.