“Where you used to be, there is a hole in the world, which I find myself constantly walking around in the daytime, and falling in at night.”
Edna St. Vincent Millay
There’s a screeching noise ahead and it sounds like a scream echoing through the valley, but it is quickly drowned out by the thundering of the steam train as it shoots through the thick clouds rolling off the edge of the mountain. It’s freezing cold, not even snowing but spitting pinpricks of ice. Harry throws his shoulder against the metal door and feels it give in, sees the dent in it when he steps back to throw his body at it again.
“Up and at ‘em, pal.”
He doesn’t need to turn around to know the exact way Louis’ lips are curling up, how his gaze is sharp and focused, frost stuck to the collar of his coat, hair blown away from his face by the sharp wind coming in through the open windows. Harry throws himself forward again and the door gives way with a loud groan, bangs against the wall as he clambers into the next compartment, left arm coming up to hold the shield out in from of him. Louis is on his heels, rifle readied and scanning the cart, which appears to be empty at first glance, but all of a sudden there’s a blast and Harry feels it hit his shield, strength of the HYDRA-made weapon enough to make him go tumbling.
The shield slides from his grip and clatters over the ground and there are two HYDRA soldiers approaching with pointed weapons. Harry is just getting back to his feet when they shoot again, but a hit from Louis’ rifle to the soldier’s shoulder diverts it. The entire compartment shakes as the blast goes through the side and takes half the wall with it. Suddenly, the wind that curls around them is almost solid with its strength and the serum doesn’t stop Harry’s eyes from watering. Before he can react to anything, the second soldier has readied his weapon.
Harry can only assume it’s instinct that makes Louis grab the shield. The weirdly blue colored blast of energy hits the shiny surface and it was enough to knock Harry off his feet, but it catapults Louis a few feet back and with the blink of an eye, he’s gone.
A sound Harry doesn’t recognize as his own forces itself past his lips and he’s on his feet the shred of a second later. He hurls the dislodged door at the two soldiers who go down like wet sacks of potatoes and leaps towards the hole in the wall of the compartment, holding on to the edges.
He screams at the top of his lungs, the steam train ploughing on instantly swallowing his voice, but Harry barely registers anything happening. His entire focus is zeroed in on Louis clinging onto the side of the train and God knows how he managed to grab onto something considering the blow he took. He’s always been a crafty bugger. His gloves are sliding along the metal bar and Harry’s eyes are burning, his throat is tight.
“I’m fine!” Louis yells back, feet dangling in the air and it’s obviously not fine, but even this close to plummeting down into a valley they can’t even see the bottom of at this stage, he’s trying to assure Harry. “Keep going, Haz, all right? I’ll be fine!”
“No!” He’s trying to figure out how to do this. Harry’s gotten used to having superhuman strength, but he can’t stretch his limbs and Louis is out of his reach and there’s nothing he could hold onto. “Hold on, please!”
He knows Louis is slipping, knows the winds are pulling at his body and he shouldn’t be reckless, should think of the greater cause and responsibility and the war, but at the moment his entire world is hanging on to life by just a metal bar that’s slowly but steadily starting to peel away from the wall. Without thinking about it for another second, Harry grips the edge of the hole with his right hand and kicks his left foot into the metal. He stretches his entire body, reaches out with his left arm, but Louis is still too far away.
“Stop!” Louis tells him, looking desperate not for himself but for Harry and his entire chest seems to be on fire. “Just fuck off! Leave, God dammit, Haz!”
“I’m not leaving!” he shouts, throat feeling raw. “Hold on, just – I’m almost there! Don’t you dare to let go, I’m almost there!” Louis’ right hand slips off the bar. “Take my hand!” Harry yells and leans closer, hopefully close enough for Louis to swing his arm forward for Harry to grab. “Lou! Please! Please, take my hand!”
Louis looks scared, and he looks so young and it seems like time freezes for a moment as Harry looks into his eyes. He swears he can feel Louis’ fingertips brush his own, is almost convinced he’s about to close his hand around Louis’ wrist.
The next second, Louis is gone.
Harry startles awake with a silent scream that still hurts all the way up his throat. His chest is heaving, sheets dropped into his lap, heart pounding painfully and the roaring of the train still echoing in his ears. He lifts his hand and isn’t surprised to find that his cheeks are wet with tears. Dragging fingers through his curls, tugging enough for a soft burst of pain to pull him back into the here and now, Harry lets out a long breath and sits in silence for another minute before pushing away the duvet and swinging his legs over the edge of the bed.
The ground under his feet is perfectly heated, like everywhere in this unbelievable tower. He sighs and lifts his gaze to the panorama windows that show a perfect view of Manhattan at night, lights adorning it like stars. It’s early and there’s only a sliver of pink on the horizon, but Harry knows he’s not going to go back to sleep, so he walks up to the glass and leans his forehead against it, looking down.
He should be afraid of heights, Harry guesses, and it’s probably some definition of cruelty that he’s not. Forcing his heavy eyes to stay open, because he’s terrified of what he might see once he closes them, he turns around and heads for his bathroom. All he needs is a cold shower and a run around Central Park before anyone else wakes up. It’s worked all the other days, and Harry prays it’ll work this time as well
It’s half past seven when Harry walks into the communal kitchen after his second shower. It’s so incredibly sleek and modern and it still startles him, but the smell of freshly ground coffee and fried eggs is familiar and instantly settles his unease. Niall’s standing at the stove, back turned to him, in a grey t-shirt and baggy sweatpants, humming along to a song that’s quietly playing on the radio. Harry is still not used to seeing him in such a casual setting, out of his black uniform, no bow, no weapons, looking like any regular guy in his mid-twenties.
He realizes he doesn’t even know how old Niall actually is.
“Morning,” he says, voice throaty because he hasn’t used it in perhaps a day or so.
Niall turns around with a smile that too cheerful for this time of day and again contrasts so sharply with the persona he puts on when he becomes a deadly assassin who fights alien armies from outer space. Harry absentmindedly wonders how this has become his second life.
“Mornin’ Cap,” Niall says. “You look rough. Have some coffee.”
He resists the urge to check his reflection. Harry knows how dark the circles underneath his eyes are, can’t remember the last time he slept through the night and despite his body needing far less rest than regular people, it’s not been enough for quite some time. There’s a steaming pot of coffee standing on the kitchen island because Niall told him in confidentiality that he doesn’t trust the machines in this household, and that includes the coffee machine that resembles – well. Harry doesn’t know what it resembles, but it doesn’t look like something that can produce actual coffee. Niall and he have an understanding on that part.
Sitting down on one of the fancy bar stools that are set up around the kitchen island, Harry pours himself a cup and adds so much cream and sugar that Niall pulls a face at him. He can’t help it; he’s never had a surplus of or unlimited access to sugar and he’s taken a liking to it. Niall tells him he has a sweet tooth. Harry tends to reply that he has superhuman metabolism and needs the calories.
“Wanna talk about it?” Harry raises his brows at Niall, who is putting an impressive amount of eggs onto an already loaded plate and joins him at the island. “About what put those craters under your eyes?”
Harry’s stomach is still turning and he still refuses to close his eyes, scared what his subconscious might show him then. This isn’t something he can just talk about, and he doubts he’ll ever be ready to share it. He hasn’t quite figured out who he is yet in this twenty-first century full of new and different things. “Just – nightmares,” is what he settles on, close to the truth without revealing too much of it.
“Ah,” Niall nods, scooping a spoonful of eggs into his mouth. “We all get those. Zayn nearly killed me once during one of his. Almost broke me neck.” He continues to chew like there’s nothing abnormal about that, and Harry assumes there isn’t, at least not for him.
“Where is he?” Harry asks, sipping his sugary coffee. “I haven’t seen him in a few days.”
Niall simply cocks his head.
“Right,” Harry admits. “Stupid question. When will he be back?” He gets the same reaction. “Okay, again, stupid question. He’ll be back when he’s back, huh?”
“That’s the general pattern,” Niall replies and turns his attention to a piece of slightly charred bacon. “And before you ask another question you actually know the answer to, Payno’s down in his workshop doing God knows what with God knows what.”
“Right,” Harry says, finishing his coffee. “I’ll be on my floor then. Alert me when anything happens.”
Niall tips an imaginary hat. “You’ll be the first to know, Cap.”
After he’s woken up, Arlington is one of the first places they drag him to, publicly, surrounded by Army Generals he’s never met and SHIELD agents he doesn’t know and he sees his own name engraved in marble, lights flashing in his stricken face.
Harry is a man out of time. He feels it, too. There isn’t a manual on how to deal with waking up in the twenty-first century after being a frozen block of ice for about seventy years. There is nobody there to tell him how he is supposed to mourn all the people who are just gone or how to feel when he comes face to face with his own grave, surrounded by an ocean of white stones and almost unnaturally green fields.
There is his name, and there is Louis’ right next to it and Harry can’t even begin to mourn him, wound still open and fresh and throbbing in his chest. He knows that his coffin is as empty as Louis’ and, not for the first time since he’s woken up, Harry wishes it weren’t.
He starts working for SHIELD, because there is nothing else he can do. There are no job openings for formerly frozen supersoldiers and Harry isn’t ready to get back into the world just yet. He still feels awfully detached, suspended in air and, apart from the nightmares that wake him every night, worryingly numb. There’s a shrink he is supposed to see every other week, a nice woman in sharp suits and red glasses and auburn hair that’s greying at the temples, but Harry doesn’t know how to talk to her, or what to say.
The Avenger Initiative is a blessing in disguise, really. Harry doesn’t want to call it a blessing, because an alien invasion from space that destroys half of Manhattan is not, but with Iron Man, Black Widow and Hawkeye – or Liam, Zayn and Niall as he knows now – he’s found a small group of people who seem equally out of place. At first, Harry expected them to be at each other’s throats, but after a few months and a handful of missions, they’ve grown quite attached to each other.
(He says attached. The reality of it is hard to explain. Harry would probably trust them with his life by now, and they sort of live together in that massive tower Liam built for Payne Industries originally, but they don’t see each other all that much. Liam busies himself in his workshop with robots and inventions and goes to meetings with shareholders, and Niall and Zayn go off to wherever SHIELD wants them to be, sometimes apart, sometimes together, but mostly for a handful of weeks every time.)
But being an Avenger means continuing to be Captain America and smiling and being honorable for the public and Harry does his best. It helps him to keep busy, attending veteran memorials, helping out various charities and going on the occasional SHIELD mission as well. But it doesn’t give him time to figure out who he is supposed to be once he takes off his uniform and puts the shield to the side.
Just being Harry had always involved Louis, and Harry fears he doesn’t know how to exist without him. He’s perfectly aware that it’s not exactly a healthy coping mechanism to flat out refuse to cope with anything, but it’s all he can do at this point. He puts on his uniform, shoves the nightmares and flashbacks and thoughts to the back of his mind and takes one day at a time.
Zayn comes back from wherever it was he disappeared to just two days after Harry’s latest recurring nightmare. He has enhanced senses, fought a war, but Zayn can creep around the tower without even the artificial intelligence keeping track of him. Suddenly, he’s just sitting next to Harry on one of the sofas in the communal living room. Harry startles and accidentally turns his fortunately empty teacup into dust in his fist.
“You’re twitchy,” Zayn comments while Harry tries to calm his heartbeat and school his expression back into something resembling composure. “You should take a nap, kind of looking like hell, Cap.”
Zayn’s still in uniform, completely dressed in black and Harry doesn’t try to locate all the weapons he has disguised on his body. He looks weary and a bit worn down, which is worrying. Harry’s never seen him look so tired apart from the battle of New York. He wonders what kind of mission has kept Zayn busy for the past few days.
“Haven’t been sleeping well,” Harry says and meets Zayn’s eyes. He doesn’t move and he doesn’t urge Harry to elaborate, but his gaze is piercing and Harry feels like he’s peeling off layer after layer to get to everything Harry’s holding back. He feels incredibly exposed around Zayn, and Harry hasn’t quite decided how comfortable he is with that. “How was the mission?”
“Unpleasant,” Zayn says and doesn’t elaborate.
“Any injuries?” Harry asks.
“Nothing I can’t handle.”
It’s unnaturally quiet after that, Liam having soundproofed the entire building as far as Harry can tell. No traffic noises are coming in and sometimes it’s nice; sometimes it’s downright creepy. Zayn observes him for another moment, then he gets up. Harry notices that he favors his right leg, clenches his left fist for a second, a muscle in his jaw twitching. A twisted ankle, a torn shoulder, a couple of bruised ribs.
“I need a shower, then the Director needs me back at HQ. And he wants to meet all of us at 0700 hours tomorrow.”
“Copy that,” Harry nods and watches Zayn leave the room in quick, even strides. He stays in his seat for another few minutes before standing as well, venturing to the kitchen to grab some food, give himself something to do other than listen to that voice in his head telling him that they haven’t been on a mission as the Avengers in a few months. That only something serious would prompt SHIELD to assemble them again.
Harry pours himself some coffee that’s left from this morning despite caffeine having no effect on him whatsoever. As always, he puts in cream and sugar, sits down on a stool and grabs the paper. Niall had filled in parts of the crossword with his chicken scratch and there’s Liam’s neater writing filling in some other parts along with a couple of oil smudges, indicating that he’s at least resurfacing from his workshop long enough to eat and name the capital of Kazakhstan. Then an idea must’ve popped into his head, because there are a few scribbles to the side, some notes, a rough blueprint of something technical Harry doesn’t understand.
He doesn’t see Zayn again, and Liam stays in his workshop all night, which is becoming a worrying habit. According to JARVIS (Harry still finds it strange to address a computer with a name, but then again, Liam keeps insisting that JARVIS is a lot more than that), Niall left the tower at exactly eight in the morning and hasn’t returned since, so Harry whips up a big portion of pasta and sits down in front of the TV.
None of the shows manage to catch his attention, so Harry just settles on the repeat of a college football game and lets the noises wash over him. He goes to bed some time past midnight and this time he doesn’t have nightmares. Instead, Harry tosses and turns and gets tangled in his sheets until the sun is a faint glow on the horizon, unable to find rest and heart beating heavily in his chest.
There’s an exhibition at the Smithsonian about World War II and Captain America and his fearless troops. SHIELD urges him to go again and again, to show his support, but it’s the one thing Harry can’t bring himself to do. To him, this is all still real and it’s part of his life and it shouldn’t belong in a museum. He doesn’t want to see black and white photographs, doesn’t want to read essays on operations he went on – at least that’s what it feels like – mere weeks ago; doesn’t want to pretend to be the image America spent over sixty years creating.
There’s a significant distinction between the person Harry is and the role he takes on as Captain America, and it seems that there is now a third variable in the equation, but he’s not ready to contort himself to fit an obscure image the public has of him, which is why he doesn’t want to publicly attend something that’s so personal he couldn’t keep a blank face.
He knows Liam went to see it, and he knows Niall did as well, because they’d both left brochures on the table in the communal kitchen and not being able to resist, Harry had flicked through them. They had an entire page dedicated to Louis, the only fallen comrade of the Howling Commandoes, and he’d crumpled the brochure into a tight ball. His hands had shaken for days.
Harry barely turns any heads when he makes his way to SHIELD headquarters early the next morning, but it’s not surprising. He doesn’t look much like the posters they’ve apparently been selling for the past decades since he’s grown out his army cut, hair curling around his ears like it had done before the war. And out of his uniform and without the shield, in blue jeans and a beanie and a flannel shirt, he probably looks more like the people Niall tends to call “filthy hipsters”. Harry’s yet to figure out what exactly he means by that.
Zayn is leaning beside the front door when Harry gets there, dressed in black, cigarette between his lips, looking more alive than he had the day before.
“Any chance of you telling me what this is about before the meeting?”
“Nope.” He flicks the cigarette onto the sidewalk and turns around without another word, walks through the sliding doors, flashing his pass.
Harry follows on his heels, tripping slightly on the slippery floors between the lobby and the lifts. He assumes Niall is already waiting and knows Liam will be running late, forgetting about the concept of time working on the newest version of his suit. The Director is used to it and it isn’t going to earn Liam more than a raised eyebrow. Harry uses Liam’s inevitable lateness to nip to one of the machines on the sixteenth floor to get some gum before walking to the conference room at the end of the hall.
Zayn and Niall are already seated one end of the rectangular table, Director Cowell is standing at the other, so Harry pulls up the chair on the right. Liam shuffles in only ten minutes late, smelling like the inside of a new car.
There are no windows.
“Right, shall we get started then?” Director Cowell asks once they’ve all taken a seat. He takes a small remote control and presses a button and a screen appears at the wall behind him, flickering on, showing an aerial picture of an old city centre. It looks like a place in Europe, though Harry can’t say for sure. “Thanks to information gathered by Agent Malik over the last few weeks, we have reason to believe that there is a plan in place to eliminate one of our European delegates during a conference in Prague next week.”
The aerial shot of what Harry now believes to be Prague shifts to show a middle-aged man with jet black hair greying at the temples and a precisely trimmed goatee.
“Meet Mr Benjamin Winston,” the Director continues, “member of the European Parliament as well as an advisor to our European branch. He’s been very outspoken with regards to the heightening of control on arms trade, as well as an increase in transparency, and we believe he’s caught the attention of a few terrorist branches that can all be traced back to a single source.”
“HYDRA?” Harry concludes.
“Unfortunately,” Cowell confirms, stepping aside as to not block the blurry photographs that have just popped up.
“Sorry to interrupt,” Liam speaks up. There are still smudges of motor oil on his forearms. “But wouldn’t that usually be a job for the STRIKE team? Or a few of overseas agents? Doesn’t ring Avengers to me, to be honest.”
“You’d think that,” the Director concedes as the screen flickers again. Two blurry black and white photographs pop up, highly pixelated, prompting Harry to squint. “That’s what we assumed at first. But thanks to Agent Malik, we know that HYDRA aren’t sending in one of their run-of-the-mill assassins.
He zooms in on the pictures, which does absolutely nothing for their clarity. All Harry can see is a blurry figure dressed in black, cowering on what he assumes to be the roof of a building.
“Who’s that?” he asks, not sure if he’s meant to actually distinguish the person in these pictures.
“He’s a ghost,” Zayn speaks up and Harry turns his head to look at him. He’s got his arms folded in front of his chest, fingers absentmindedly kneading over his left collarbone. “Nobody knows who he is, or where he’s from, or what he’s called,” and Harry figures it’s most likely a big deal that even Zayn doesn’t know. “Most people know him as the Winter Soldier.”
“Never heard of him,” Liam throws in. He’s already getting twitchy, Harry can tell, probably left something unfinished in his workshop. He keeps twirling his cellphone in his hand.
“That’s because he doesn’t exist,” Cowell replies, and the pictures change again, more blurred shots of a figure clad in black, taken from a distance or in fast movement. “The first time SHIELD took account of him was in the late fifties. He appeared on our radar various times in the sixties and quite frequently in the seventies as well, but other than a few exceptions, the last thirty years have been without incident. Yet with the founding of the Avenger Initiative, he reappeared.”
“Wait, so you’re saying this person, if we even know whether it’s a man or a woman, has been active for almost sixty years?” Harry blinks at him, then squints at the pictures again. There’s a metallic gleam in two of them, perhaps a weapon or some sort of armor. “Can this even be the same person?”
Director Cowell hands him a file, Classified stamped on top of it. Harry flicks through the first few pages, a rundown of the conference in Prague, the attendees as well as floor plans of various buildings.
“We’ve considered that. It’s certainly one of our theories, that this is a role that’s filled by someone else this time around. It could’ve easily been the same person in the sixties and seventies and the inactivity could’ve been the subject’s decease,” Cowell explains.
“But it’s unlikely,” Zayn jumps in once again, making Harry’s eyebrows shoot up towards his hairline.
Zayn reaches for the manila folder in Harry’s hands. He spreads out a few papers, some of the close-up shots of the person that’s supposed to be the Winter Soldier and points at the metallic shine that’s already caught Harry’s attention.
“There were only a few eyewitnesses over the past fifty years, but they all pointed out that the Soldier had his left arm encased in metal. Could’ve been a uniform, something similar to the Iron Man suit,” Liam huffs at that, “but I had an unfortunate encounter with him earlier this year. And that left arm is a prosthetic. I very much doubt that there are two people in the world who have a metal prosthetic for an arm.”
“Christ,” Harry can’t help but utter, and he also can’t help noticing that Niall’s been unusually quiet. There’s no time for him to address that though, because the Director speaks up once more.
“You will have time to acquaint yourself with the acquired information, but I’m sure you understand why we need the Avengers for this. Mr Winston is an unexpected target, but he is one of ours, and he is a valuable member.” He switches off the screen and lets a long, hard look settle on each one of them. “I will not have some cyborg assassin do any more harm.”
“You want us to eliminate him?” Liam asks, eyes on his phone, already scanning in the reports. “Because that’s not something we do.”
“No,” Director Cowell says firmly. “I want you to capture him.”
Harry sidles up next to Niall on their way out. Liam’s already rushed out and Zayn is staying behind for superspy things, so they’re on their own.
“Are you okay?” he asks, popping a stripe of gum into his mouth. “You don’t look too happy about this mission.”
“That’s because I’m not,” Niall replies, looking left and right, quickly doing an automatic scan of the area as they exit the building. “Fucking insane, if you ask me. That fucker nearly killed Zayn a couple of months ago, shot straight through his chest, almost bled to death. We don’t know what we’re up against. I don’t like not knowing who I’m facing.”
He turns right and Harry mindlessly follows, even though the tower is in the exact opposite direction. Niall seems distressed, and Harry doesn’t mind taking a detour. The weather’s pleasant enough, perhaps a bit chilly for early September, and he usually gets restless if he doesn’t get his dose of exercise.
“Well, they know as much as they were able to figure out,” Harry suggests as Niall harshly turns another corner, stalking in the direction of Central Park, digging his hands into his pockets and hunching his shoulders.
“Bullshit,” he almost spits. “They know zilch. They had fifty years to figure out who that bloke is, but they can’t. All they know is that he’s got a metal arm and was injected with something that’s a whole fucking lot like the juice the pumped you full with in the forties.”
Harry stops short. “What?”
Niall spins around, walks closer and drops his voice. His breath smells like coffee. “Why do you think he’s lived as long? Or is that fucking lethal? If it were a normal HYDRA agent, they’d have sent Zayn or me. You and Payno are being dragged along because the Winter Soldier is not bloody human.”
His jaw drops. But Harry figures it shouldn’t come as a surprise. Even during the war, they all knew that the Red Skull’s scientific research team was highly advanced and it had been a given that they’d been working on their own version of the serum after Captain America got involved in the actual fighting. But the fact that they might have been successful, that HYDRA has an active, trained assassin who’s been injected with it…
“SHIELD doesn’t give a damn about Winston,” Niall continues with a frown. Traffic is picking up and they’re only a few blocks away from Fifth Avenue, so the noise level is increasing, muffling his voice even more. “Might be even using him as bait. They want the Soldier and they want to milk him for information.”
Then he walks again and Harry takes a moment to catch up to him, not really knowing what to say to all of this. This new world and these new structures are still a bit foreign to him. He’s already understood that it’s not as easy to distinguish good from bad anymore, but he certainly doesn’t appreciate being told half-truths.
They walk around for another hour, stopping for bagels and only turning a few heads, and when they get back to the tower, the morning bustle of the city is in full flow. Thankfully, there’s a private lift that takes them all the way up to the top levels. It’s entirely made out of bulletproof glass, so Harry takes a moment to switch off his brain as the skyline of Manhattan slides past. Once they reach the communal area, big living room and open kitchen, he and Niall are greeted by the sight of Ms Smith, Liam’s assistant and – well. Harry doesn’t like to pry. They’re all entitled to a private life. Niall says if Liam had a Facebook account, the relationship status would be set to “it’s complicated” – whatever that means.
Ms Smith – “Seriously, Captain, call me Sophia” – is perched on one of the stools set around the kitchen island, delicate and manicured fingers curled around a cup of coffee, a big stack of documents and files on the table beside her.
“Good to see you, ma’am,” Harry greets her just as Niall says, “Y’all right, Soph?”
It earns both of them a fond smile as she places the cup on the countertop. “Agent, Captain,” she says. “I heard you’re heading to Prague. Beautiful city.”
“Afraid we won’t see too much of it,” Niall says, rounding the island. He takes a bowl out of the cupboard above the sink and pours in some cereal and milk. Harry thinks it’s his third breakfast. “Will be too busy to do sightseeing.” Sitting down, he scoops in two mouthfuls of cereal. “You here on business?”
“Unfortunately, yes,” Sophia says, eyeing the big pile of documents. “Liam’s been avoiding any business-related activities, but I do need his signature for all of these contracts.” She takes a sip of her coffee and lowers her gaze to her Payne tablet, apparently going through her calendar. “I’m hoping to wear him down once he comes up for a caffeine refill, since I had JARVIS disable his machine in the lab.”
Niall laughs at that, milk running down his chin. He wipes it off with his hand. “Remind me to not make an enemy out of you.”
Harry sits down as well, takes the morning paper to start on the crossword and it’s only a half hour later before Liam walks in as well, sighs audibly at Sophia’s raised brows and takes the pen she holds out to him in defeat. He takes the first contract, sighs again to make a point, but Sophia only goes back to her tablet and her second cup of coffee.
“There, there,” she says flatly. “You know, it wouldn’t be this much if you came into your office more than once every four weeks.”
“I’m busy,” Liam insists, not earning the desired reaction when Sophia doesn’t react at all.
“So am I, Payne. Suck it up.”
It’s a familiar exchange, Harry has come to know, prompted by Liam’s avoidance of official Payne Industries business and Sophia’s task of making sure he doesn’t drown in motor oil or forget the existence of a world outside his workshop. She’s the only one who really takes him down a peg or two and it sparks a memory in Harry’s head, a high-pitched yet slightly rough voice telling him, “someone needs to make sure your big feet stay on the dirty ground alongside ours”. There’s an image that goes with it, Louis looking beat up and tired, lying on a small cot, eyes startlingly blue even against the dark background of the tent.
“Cap?” Someone pulls him out of his own head. “Cap, you all right?”
Harry blinks, vision swimming, and finds that his suddenly bunched up fists have ripped the newspaper into shreds. He looks up, finds Niall, Sophia and Liam staring at him. He swallows the lump in his throat.
“Yeah, sorry, I – I zoned out for a second,” he replies, getting to his feet unsteadily.
“Kind of noticed that from your thousand-mile stare, mate,” Niall comments. “Everything okay?”
“Sure,” Harry is quick to assure them. “I think I’m going to hit the shower, feeling a bit out of it.” He doesn’t wait for their reaction, just turns on his heels and exits the communal area; fully aware they’ll be talking about him as soon as the automatic doors shut behind him.
He does end up taking a shower, letting hot water run over his neck and down his back as he leans his forehead against the tiles, telling himself it’s washing away the images and memories when he’s very certain that’s not what’s happening at all. On the contrary, Harry suddenly feels transported back into the small medical tent near the German border, mud frozen beneath his boots and Louis looking half-dead, small and fragile and painfully young after having endured weeks of torture at the hands of his captors.
It had probably been both the best and the worst day of Harry’s life; Louis telling their commanding officer to shove the medals and honorable discharge up his ass, because he wasn’t going anywhere.
A part of him will forever blame himself for allowing Louis to stay, despite knowing that nobody would’ve been able to sway Louis from his decision once he’d made it.
The other, more selfish and secret part will forever be grateful for every additional second he got to spend with Louis because of it.
They leave for Prague two days later, the Quinjet taking them there in under eight hours, getting them to a secured apartment building by early evening. It’s opposite the Hotel General, where the conference will take place. It’s also where most delegates are staying and the apartment on the top floor gives them a good view over the hotel as well as the buildings surrounding it.
When Harry steps outside into the evening crowd, donning a hat and a sweatshirt to blend in, he takes a moment to soak up the atmosphere, the golden lights and the cobbled sidewalks and the ornate street lanterns. He’s never been to Eastern Europe before, but this city reminds him a lot of Paris, memories bittersweet, enough to make his eyes water a little.
He turns to the left to walk around the block once and scan the area while Zayn and Niall check out the hotel and its various entrances and exits. Liam’s back at the apartment, hacking into the surveillance videos but knowing him, he’s already cracked it and it fiddling with his suit. So Harry keeps moving, curls his shoulder forward and ducks his head to appear smaller, to not stand out between the small groups of people sightseeing or searching for a place to have dinner at.
He’s just turned right a third time when he notices something out of the corner of his eyes, a prickling at his neck, and he comes to a halt, turns around. At first, he doesn’t know what it is that makes him stop, then Harry raises his gaze, eyes twitching along the street and he notices a window, slightly ajar, on the third floor of the building opposite the east wing of the hotel.
It takes him only a second to decide, then he dashes across the street, dodging cars and pedestrians. In less than five seconds, he’s standing at the bottom of the stairwell and takes a deep breath before taking three steps at a time. His leg muscles don’t even strain slightly as he runs up to the third floor and quickly scans the hallway to decide which room to burst into.
“Cap, what’s your position?” Liam’s voice sounds in his ear.
Harry isn’t armed, but that’s never stopped him before. He stops at the second door down and gives it a kick. It gets thrown out of its hinges and crashed to the ground, but it’s in vain. The room – a studio apartment stripped bare as it seems – is entirely empty, safe for a dirty, fitted kitchen on the left. But the window is still open and when Harry walks up to it, he sees a small chalk mark, probably a Cyrillic letter, on the sill.
“Your position, Harry,” Liam demands to know again and Harry puts a fingers against the tiny in-ear piece, presses down.
“Opposite the east wing, third floor,” he says, leaning closer. Russian isn’t one of his few talents, but he’s got no doubt Zayn will know what it means once he’s taken a look at it.
As it is, it only takes two minutes or so until Zayn is standing by his side. “It’s the Cyrillic letter for E,” he explains, leaning close to the mark but not touching it. “Could be marking various points from which he can hit the target. Winston’s room is across the street, fifth floor, seventh window from the right.” Zayn straightens again, gives Harry a quick look. “It’s a difficult shot.”
“Can’t take any chances, though,” Harry says, glancing out the window and onto the street. “And I kind of have the feeling he was looking at me.”
“Most likely,” Zayn admits, folding his arms in front of his chest. “Showing us that he’s got more than one way of getting to Winston.”
“So what do we do now?”
Zayn shrugs. “Continue as before. We’ve got a number of eyes on the target as well. If the Soldier shows up again, we’ll know.”
They’re on highest alert the next day. Mr Winston is constantly accompanied by agents and Liam, slouching back in their apartment opposite the hotel, is monitoring every tiny movement, keeping them informed on people exiting and entering the hotel through their ear-pieces. Harry knows that Niall is on the roof with his bow, should the Winter Soldier decide to use it as an entrance or escape route and Zayn, in an expensive suit, weapons and Widow Bites concealed, is somewhere on the edge of the large dining hall, while Harry is up on the gallery, looking down onto the ocean of black suits.
It’s only the first evening, and the conference is taking place over the next three days. The assassin might strike tonight or tomorrow morning or at the last minute, or any second in between really, there’s no way of knowing. It’s far from ideal and this isn’t exactly a military operation like Harry was trained to lead, like he’s experienced with. All he can do is rely on Zayn’s seemingly sixth sense and Liam’s voice in his ear-pierce; perhaps his own instincts as well.
But the evening remains uneventful and by the time Mr Winston returns to his suite, Harry breathes a sigh of relief that’s possibly premature. There are no cameras inside the actual rooms, but Liam’s got heat sensors installed to pick up if a second body enters it, so Niall (Harry doesn’t know how exactly) is perched outside the window, which doesn’t have a balcony, and Harry and Zayn are in corridor. His shield is leaning against the wall, blue and red and white against a weird ochre-colored wallpaper.
“I’ll check in with the Director,” Zayn announces after a beat, quickly glancing at his watch, “then I’ll scan the lower floors, instruct the other agents. Keep me posted.”
“I will,” Harry assures him and can’t help the way his heels want to click together after that. His old Colonel would be proud.
Once Zayn is out of view, Harry takes position beside the door to Mr Winston’s suite. It’s going to be a long night.
Liam says, “If the Winter Soldier as much as coughs in the vicinity of the hotel, we’ll know about it.”
But as the third day of the conference in Prague dawns and Harry tries to shake off a crick in his neck, he’s not so sure if they have been fed false information, or if HYDRA possibly delayed any plans because of the Avengers’ arrival. In any case, aside from the small chalk mark he had discovered, there’s not a single trace of a metal-armed assassin and Harry’s growing impatient.
He’s used to combat and military operations, a direct approach to everything he does. He’s not like Zayn and Niall, who can hold out in one spot for hours on end without even the slightest twitch of their muscles. Or like Liam, who can concentrate on extrapolating data and going over surveillance tapes or build a robot on the side, from scratch.
So, of course, in a fit of cosmic irony (or perhaps not, since Harry’s been hoping for something to happen), it happens on Harry’s watch, Zayn and Niall not far away but still away.
It’s been a long day and even Harry can feel it in his bones, the toll it takes when one has to be alert every second. Mr Winston is walking in front of him, a few yards away from the door to his suite, two SHIELD agents guarding it. The window at the end of the hall shows the building on the other side of the road, tinged in yellow light from the street lanterns, similar to the light coming from the ornate lamps above them. Their steps are muffled on the carpet, which is why Harry hears the sudden almost inaudible clank that makes him stop short before a loud crash echoes through the corridor.
It’s entirely down to instinct when Harry, without checking, without thinking twice of looking what’s actually caused that thundering noise, throws his body forward to shield Mr Winston off, and just in time it seems, because only the fraction of a second later, he hears a shot and a sharp gust of wind flies right over his head. He makes a grab for his shield, realizes with a curse that he’d left it in the hotel room they’re heading towards, and quickly gets to his feet, pushing Mr Winston behind his body.
And then he sees him. Clad in black from head to toe, left arm glimmering metallic, goggles and mask obscuring most of his face and brown hair falling to his ears. He’s surprisingly small, but there’s no doubt that every part of his body is honed with hidden strength, making him quick as a whip. It only takes Harry a second to take all of that in and to understand that the Winter Soldier has literally dropped from the ceiling and taken out both agents with a single strike. Their bodies are lying on the ground and the Soldier is crouching down, gun in hand, ready to pounce.
“Cap?” Liam’s tinny voice sounds in Harry’s ear. “Cap, come in,” but Harry’s got no opportunity to reply.
The Winter Soldier aims his gun, and Harry darts forward. They collide heavily, air getting knocked out of his lungs and weapon clattering to the ground, sound muffled by the thick carpet. A couple of quick steps, Harry advancing due to momentum, but his opponent pushes back surprisingly quickly, and with even more surprising force. Harry’s never been up against anyone who can stand their ground in one-on-one combat. He manages to hit the Soldier once before he blocks Harry’s attacks, the metal of his arm cold and solid, turning the tables until Harry is forced back, lifting his arms in defence, dodging a hit and then another and groaning when he receives a knee to his side.
The Soldier is too quick. They’re a close match in strength, but the Winter Soldier is faster, more practiced and even more importantly, more ruthless where Harry still feels a shred of hesitation. It’s that shred that lets the Soldier get the upper hand in the fraction of a second. Suddenly, there’s a knife angling for his face and Harry grips the leather-clad wrists to stop it about a centimeter before the tip cuts open the skin between his eyes. His muscles scream and strain like they have last done during the Battle of New York, but his feet lose their grounding, making him tumble back against the wall. Harry manages to duck away and the knife gets stuck in the wall next to his head.
It gives him a second to breathe, not longer, but it’s enough to take a closer look at the attacker; almost a head shorter than him and much narrower in general but around the shoulders especially, and the only skin visible is a sliver of forehead, everything else hidden by black clothing and leather, mask and goggles. His hair looks - it looks weirdly soft.
Harry ducks again when the metal fist is aimed at his face. The wall brittles, dust and stones and shredded wallpaper falling to the floor and Harry twists away, manages to get a hold of the Soldier’s right arm and rolls him over his shoulder. His body collides with the ground, allowing Harry just enough time to send a look over his shoulder where Mr Winston is still cowering, looking at them with wide eyes. Harry realizes that the entire exchange of blows has probably only lasted a few seconds at most, not enough for Mr Winston to compose himself and run for his bloody life.
Just as Mr Winston seems to realize what he should have done instead of hesitating, Zayn rounds the corner and the Winter Soldier is back on his feet, previously lost gun once again in his hand, and this time, there isn’t enough time to move. The shot echoes loudly and Zayn stills. Mr Winston falls back from the impact, bullet hitting his chest. Zayn is by his side in a second and Harry turns, but the Soldier is already running for the window at the end of the corridor. Harry tries to catch up to him, but he’s still a few steps away when he breaks through the glass.
Harry leaps forward, hands grabbing the now empty frame, but when he looks out into the night and down onto the relatively busy street where people are already glancing up at him, he can see no trace of the dark figure that by laws of gravity should be lying on the concrete a few stories below.
“Hawkeye, you see anything?” He knows that Niall has been securing the roof and the surrounding buildings.
It only takes a second for his voice to come in through Harry’s earpiece. “No, shit. Fucking shit, what the hell happened?” following by Liam demanding an update.
Harry curses under his breath. He’s disappeared. Somehow, that damned ghost assassin managed to slip under their radar not just once but twice in the timeframe of less than five minutes. Turning back around with a pounding heart, Harry sees that agents are hurrying down the corridor towards them. Zayn is kneeling next to Mr Winston, who’s as white as a sheet and the front of his shirt blood-soaked, applying pressure to the wound. The agents join him a second later, whipping out emergency kits and calling for back-up and alerting every other agent in and surrounding the hotel.
His eyes fall on the knife that’s still stuck in the wall and Harry grabs it, pulls it out, notices its warm, solid weight in his palm and - without knowing why - slides it into the waistband of his suit.
Mr Winston is in critical condition, but not dead, which is a stroke of luck in the embarrassment that is this mission. They take a private plane to SHIELD’s headquarter in London alongside him, so that he can be treated with maximum security. Director Cowell is less than pleased.
“He surprised me,” Harry says in a lowered voice when they finally find themselves alone in a common room in London. His shoulder hurts, a dark bruise blooming beneath his shirt from a single punch thrown by the Soldier. It’s disconcerting. Harry hardly bruises at all these days. “Dropped from the ceiling.”
“Air shafts,” Liam says. That’s all they’ve been able to figure out so far, that somehow the Winter Soldier must’ve slipped past the security barriers Liam installed, past two dozen agents and Niall and Zayn, making his way through the hotel by hiding in the bloody ceiling. “Though I’ve got no clue how he disabled the motion sensors. It’s really not your fault, Cap.”
“He was so fast,” Harry continues, rubbing his forehead, „and he blocked me like it was nothing.”
“What did I tell ya,” Niall grumbles, perched on the armrest of the couch Zayn is stretched out on. “Not fucking human. And a crafty bastard on top of it.”
“He failed,” Zayn says after a beat although his eyes remain closed.
“Well, at least that means this mission wasn’t a complete failure,” Liam replies with a shrug. He’s typing away on his phone, fingers moving quickly, probably hacking into this SHIELD branch’s system.
Zayn turns his head and opens his eyes at that. “No. He failed,” and he pauses for effect. “The Winter Soldier doesn’t fail.”
“You think he’s going to try again.” Harry catches his eyes and Zayn nods. “Here?”
Pushing his body into an upright position, Zayn sighs. “Like I said, the Winter Soldier doesn’t fail. He had a clear shot on Winston and he hit his liver. I’m sure he can hit a nail on its head from two hundred yards away, so I think he missed intentionally.”
“Knowing that we’d take Mr Winston to London were he to be severely injured?”
Zayn’s raised brow is answer enough and Harry can feel tension settle over the room. Rain is steadily hitting the bulletproof glass, London a grey, glum presence outside the windows. Harry tugs on the sleeves of his grey SHIELD issued sweatshirt, feeling cold and uneasy because there’s nothing they can do since Mr Winston is still in intensive care and apparently, HYDRA and their super-assassin have been one step ahead of them all along. Perhaps Mr Winston isn’t a target after all, just a pawn to get HYDRA closer to something else.
Maybe it’s intel they’re after or secret data, Harry wonders as his eyes follow the small droplets of water as they run down the glass, obscuring the outlines of dark chimney sticking out of crooked roofs in front of a sky that appears to be full of smoke.
Harry’s not been in London since 1945. Back then it had been raining too.
The next day, he dons a dark coat and a hat and leaves SHIELD’s facilities. It’s risky, he guesses, seeing at it’s possible that the Winter Soldier has followed them to London, that HYDRA has infiltrated this city like it seems to be infiltrating every important place in the world, but his curiosity has always been stronger than his sense of self-preservation.
Central London is nothing like he remembers, which is to be expected. It’s busy and polished and dirty at the same time, people moving about like swarms of bees, phones to their ears and eyes on the ground. The streets are clogged by cars and taxis, their tires screeching when the traffic lights abruptly change, their drivers sounding the horns. Harry walks for a while until he finds a quieter, calmer part of the city away from the bustle and he takes a couple of deep breaths, turning up the collar of his coat.
Away from all the people, London feels familiar in a way it shouldn’t and makes Harry slightly uncomfortable if he’s being honest with himself. It’s been over seventy years, but it’s also been only a year and it’s far too easy, far too easy to imagine that it’s been no time at all; that his friends and comrades are silently walking by his side, just on the way to the pub before leaving for their next mission the following morning.
Ed carrying the guitar he never parted with and Stan bickering with Johnny, James knocking their heads together before the argument could escalate while Tom led the way. And Louis next to him, always next to him, gradually quieting down the more missions they went on, but knocking their hands together nonetheless, because they never really needed words.
It unearths an ache in his chest that makes Harry feel out of breath, a vice gripping his heart and making his eyes water because he keeps burying it all, deeper and deeper every time, but all it does is hurt more whenever he allows himself to remember. That SHIELD shrink told him that he isn’t processing, yet how is he supposed to process any of it?
He takes a random turn to the left and counts every step to distract from the throbbing pain behind his ribs and enters a small and dark pub on the corner of the street. It smells like ale and tobacco, slightly muggy and not very clean, but Harry isn’t picky. Digging for some change in the pocket of his coat, he orders a pint from the middle-aged bartender who thankfully doesn’t spare him a second glance, allowing Harry to slink away to the booth that’s hidden away in a corner, a single candle sitting on the table, unlit.
Harry slides along the bench until his shoulder hits the wall and sets his pint down in front of him. To make sure he doesn’t miss anything important, he pulls his cellphone out of his pocket and places it next to the glass. He doesn’t lift the pint to have a sip. In fact, he doesn’t touch it at all, feeling nauseous and like his stomach is about to turn in on itself.
They’d gone to a place similar to this, frequented by soldiers and British girls, the night before they’d set off to Austria for what would eventually become their second to last mission. Ed had played a couple of songs on his guitar and James and Johnny had spun girls around, laughing and dancing the night away. The image of Louis and Stan leaning close together by the bar is still tattooed to the back of his eyelids, talking in lowered voices and there’s still that faint echo of stinging jealousy that had always gripped Harry when he’d see them together, so close because of their shared time in German captivity.
And like today, Harry’d been sitting separated from the rest of them, unable to let go and relax, body inexplicably tense, watching Stan and Louis talk well into the night and simmering hotly on the inside until Louis had finally grabbed his whiskey and walked over to Harry. He’d been a sight in his uniform and neatly combed hair, dim light accentuating his cheekbones and up until this day, he’s never seen anyone more beautiful.
Harry’s so immersed in his own mind he flinches when somebody flops down on the bench next to him. He immediately breathes out a sigh of relief when he realizes that it’s just Niall, smiling crookedly at him, also dressed in a run-of-the-mill black coat.
“Did you follow me?”
Niall shrugs and takes Harry’s pint, drinking almost a quarter of its content in one go. “Zayn thinks you’re suicidal.”
“Hey, I didn’t say you were. He said it. I just do what he tells me,” Niall explains and sets the glass down again. “But regardless of what Zayn thinks, you gotta admit, it’s pretty stupid to go out on your own, even if you’re Captain America. Nobody’s invincible.”
“I just needed to clear my head,” Harry explains, looking down at where his hands are pale against the dark surface of the table. “And some fresh air.”
He feels Niall’s gaze on him, heavy and assessing. “I know I’ve said it before,” Niall starts, voice lowered slightly, “but if you ever need to talk, I’ll listen, yeah?”
“Yeah,” Harry replies, trying to smile, but his mouth barely twitches. „I just - I don’t feel ready.” He looks up to find Niall’s eyes on him still, soft and understanding and yet somehow so penetrating that he gets the uncomfortable feeling the other already knows what Harry isn’t ready to spill.
“I understand. But, you know, I don’t think any of us ever feel ready. Still helps to let it out sometimes.”
Harry’s not so sure about that. He knows times have changed and all, but he’s still the same person, if not more cynical, and habits are hard to break. It’s not just unlearning a lifetime of having to hide part of who he is and what he feels. Being Captain America comes with an entirely new level of expectations he needs to uphold and he supposes Niall knows that. And coming to think of it, there’s hardly anything he knows about Niall either, or Zayn, and even Liam if he’s being exact. The only reason they know so much about Harry is due to him being a frozen block of ice for several decades with no right to privacy.
His stomach threatens to crawl up his throat when he thinks about what’s spread out at that damn exhibition at the Smithsonian.
“Thanks,” Harry eventually tells him on an exhale. “I’ll keep that in mind.”
Niall pats him on the back and empties the pint with impressive speed and gusto, then they take their leave, heading back out on to slowly darkening streets, sun sinking towards the horizon behind a curtain of thick clouds that promise more rain. People are filling the sidewalks, going home after a long day at the office, blank faces passing them until Harry’s eyes flicker over familiar features and he stops short, heart leaping in his chest.
“Cap?” Niall stops and turns to face him as people part around them. Harry twists around, eyes flickering over the crowd, veins throbbing. “Harry, are you okay?”
No trace of golden skin and azure eyes and sharp cheekbones. He must be going insane, lack of sleep catching up to him. “Yes, sorry, I - I thought… doesn’t matter. I think I’m starting to see ghosts.”
Niall grins crookedly. “As long as you don’t start talking to them,” and continues on his way, Harry struggling to shake himself out of his stupor. He turns around one more time, but all he sees is an ocean of dark coats.
They have a conference call with Director Cowell, who tells them to stay put, to be on highest alert, to keep patrol up in front of Mr Winston’s room. Security measures in the entire building are up and Zayn disappears for two days, probably trying to get information from secret sources only he has access to. Harry spends almost every waking hour in the gym, sometimes sparring with Niall or Liam, mostly training by himself whilst Niall does target practice and Liam tinkles with his suit.
Mr Winston is stable and in an artificial coma, lying in a windowless room in the heart of SHIELD’s facilities, so obviously bait that it makes Harry rather uncomfortable. The Director thinks that HYDRA doesn’t want him dead after all, but he’s a civilian, and Harry’s been trained to protect those, not invisible data.
Liam, apart from working on his suit and having agitated phone conversations with Ms Smith, busies himself with scanning the entire building and all safety measures, and spends hours trying to decode a handful of files he finds dodgy before SHIELD’s tech agents notice and toss him out of the system. He’s as uncomfortable as Harry with all the secrets this agency keeps in general, and with everything it keeps from them. But that’s a discussion for another time.
When Zayn returns, he and Niall disappear for a few hours. Harry’s learned not to wonder why. He has his suspicions, but he doesn’t know nearly enough about Niall and even less about Zayn, only that they used to be on opposite sides, Niall ordered to eliminate Zayn, and that he’d made a different choice. Sometimes gazes linger and sometimes Niall drops a comment that could imply an involvement of some kind, but times have changed and so have people and relationships and other definitions. Harry can’t consider himself experienced enough to draw a conclusion.
He finds Zayn a while later, not a clue what time of day it is in the sub-level of the building, artificial light the only kind of light he’s seen since his little detour at the start. They start wandering the corridors together in contemplative silence and Harry guesses had Zayn found out anything of importance, he’d have told him by now.
“Cowell isn’t telling me everything,” Zayn suddenly speaks up, just loud enough to penetrate the echo of their footsteps.
Harry’s head snaps to the side. “What?”
“Keep your voice down,” Zayn instructs calmly, quietly, “and keep your eyes ahead.” Harry swallows thickly and does as he’s told. “I called in a few favors and I think the Director is keeping some details from us. Whether it’s to do with whatever they have at this facility, weapons or intel – we’re not here to protect Winston. Winston’s just a decoy.”
“But he’s a SHIELD consultant. He could have been killed.”
“Cowell’s not above sacrificing one pawn if it serves a greater cause,” Zayn explains and it’s not that Harry didn’t know that, but having it said out loud is something else. “If Winston had to die for him to get his hands on the Winter Soldier, he’d agree to it in a heartbeat.”
“I thought you trust the Director,” Harry says as the take a left. They’re somewhere on the lower third floor and he’s got no clue how many more floors there are below them.
“I don’t,” Zayn replies bluntly. “I trust that he’s on the right side of the field, but that doesn’t mean I trust his decisions. And I don’t like being lied to.”
“So what do we do?” he asks as they come to a halt in front of chrome elevator doors. Harry presses his finger against the touchpad.
“Nothing, for now,” Zayn says, folding his arms and finally turning to face him. There’s a line between his brows, corners of his mouth turned downward slightly. “We’re been played from both sides and there’s nothing to do until something happens. We’ll see what the Winter Soldier’s actual mission is and then we will also find out what the Director doesn’t want us to know.”
“Sounds reasonable,” Harry says. He presses the touchpad again, because the elevators are usually quicker than this. Nothing happens. “Huh. This is weird.”
“Press it again,” Zayn instructs, and Harry does. No symbols flash up, no whirring of a metallic box ascending or descending. The lights flicker. “Shit.”
The next second, the sound of an explosion echoes from somewhere above them, and it’s enough to shake the entire floor. They both grab the frame of the elevator doors to steady themselves before lifting their eyes to the ceiling. Another crash, lights flicking on and off. Harry and Zayn share a look, then Harry fits his fingers between the elevator doors and yanks. Once there’s a small gap, he puts his palms to either side and pushes them apart.
“He disabled the elevators,” Zayn says, glancing into the empty shaft. There’s a faint thunder of quite a lot of feet pounding through the corridors. “And communication lines,” he adds, looking down at his communicator with a frown.
“Where do we go?” Harry asks. They’re both able to climb up and down, large wires pulling the elevators more than enough to support their weight. “The explosion came from the lower first or second floor, I’d say.”
“Might’ve been a distraction.” Zayn puts the communicator back into his pocket and runs a hand through his hair. “Very likely, actually. Winston’s on the first floor.”
Harry’s grip tightens, putting dents in the doors. “That’s five floors up.”
“Niall’s up there, last time I checked,” Zayn mutters, more to himself than to Harry, forehead creasing and eyes narrowing in concentration as his eyes first flicker along the empty corridor and then back to the elevator shaft. “But there’s also a closed-off section two floors down, top-level security clearance. He might be after that.”
Zayn shakes his head. “Only start on the ground level. Where’s Liam?”
“Lab on the first floor, at least he was two hours ago,” Harry replies, feeling his pulse pick up. “Do we split up?”
“I’ll go upstairs,” Zayn says, widening his stance, eyes on the wires strung tight with the weight of the elevators.
“Good. I’ll check on everything downstairs and then come up as well.”
“If you’re not up there in fifteen minutes, I’ll send Liam,” then Zayn jumps, latching onto the wires and twisting around them. He climbs up them with almost inhuman speed and is out of Harry’s sight in the blink of an eye.
Harry takes a deep breath and rearranges the shield on his back, approaching the edge. At least this time he’s reasonably prepared, in proper uniform and he knows whom he’s up against. He lets himself drop into the elevator shaft, not bothering to hold on to anything, and lands two floors deeper in a crouch. It doesn’t go any lower, concrete cold below his feet as he pries the door apart and pulls himself up into the empty corridor.
The lights are dim and it smells strange, stale and muggy. The ceiling is hanging low, the walls are bare and Harry can already tell that this is a maze. Three corridors are branching off in front of him and he hasn’t got a clue where he is supposed to go. He tries to recall the layouts of the upper floors and does so with reasonable success, so he decides to go left with quick but measured strides, body tense with alertness. The lights down here start flickering as well and the air is thin, forcing Harry to keep his breaths shallow.
The corridor cuts an abrupt corner to the right and Harry’s just turned it when the lights flicker one last time before they go off. He instantly stops in his tracks and holds his breath, listening out, trying to keep a clear head. If the Winter Soldier has found a way to cut off electricity to the entire building, they’re in deep trouble. There should be a backup generator, and Liam is probably already on the way to restore the power, but Harry doesn’t know his way around this floor and there’s a life-threatening assassin lurking possibly closer than he’d prefer.
A few beats later, a quiet buzz starts to echo between the walls and, with a short but high-pitched beep, red emergency bulbs come on, dipping the corridor in an otherworldly light. Harry takes a deep breath and takes the shield off his back as a precaution, holding it up with his left arm as he continues on what he hopes is the right way to the high-security section or whatever it is SHIELD is hiding down here.
He walks for what feels like another few minutes, but it might be less, it might be more, feeling like a rat trapped underground and wondering if Zayn already sent Liam after him. Harry figures he’d know if Liam were on his way. Iron Man isn’t one for subtle approaches. In the maze of corridors, he thinks he’s managed to keep a fairly straight line, walking left and straight away to the right when possible and it seems like it was the right tactic when he takes a final corner and, a few yards away, there’s a large door, heavy metal and secured with at least five highly-advanced locks that seem to only open with fingerprints and retina scans.
Harry still hasn’t caught up on all the advancements in technology, so he hopes that there’s a separate power supply that isn’t affected by the blackout. Walking closer, everything seems to be untouched and fully intact, which is probably a relief. But Harry doesn’t have enough time to actually be relieved, because there’s a quiet sound behind him, a soft clonk as if someone had quietly dropped from the ceiling, and when he turns on his axis, he finds himself face to face with the all-black figure of the Winter Soldier.
The Soldier is not wearing goggles this time. Icy blue orbs pierce into Harry from eyes that are smudged with black, obscuring his features nonetheless. He isn’t carrying any obvious weapons, but Harry has no doubt he’s heavily armed.
Harry widens his stance, tightens the grip on his shield and twists his upper body to the side. He takes a deep breath, narrows his eyes in concentration, then he throws the shield. It whirrs through the air, swaying rapidly from side to side and making it hard to dodge out of the way, but the Soldier doesn’t dodge. He strikes out with his left arm, metal glistening in the red artificial light. His fist collides with the shield, a loud, hollow sound ringing between the walls, and he fends it off, pushing it to the ground, movement propelling him forward where Harry is ready to meet him halfway.
They collide, forearms knocking together and Harry grits his teeth, muscles straining, swinging his left arm forward, but the Soldier parries that blow as well. He doesn’t get anywhere while they exchange a few blows, and it unsettles Harry more than he cares to admit that they’re such an even match in strength. Finally, he gets hold of a surprisingly small wrist, tries to uneven the Soldier’s footing, but he uses it to propel his body up until he can hook a head behind Harry’s neck.
Air gets punched out of Harry’s lungs when the fall heavily to the floor, another knee pistoning into his stomach. Pain sears through his body and he only manages to keep his mind clear enough to hold on to the wrist and twist his opponent’s arm back until he grits out a groan. Harry rolls over to his other side and uses his momentum to throw the Soldier over his shoulder. His black form slides over the floor and it gives Harry enough time to get to his feet, midsection of his body aching and thin air making it harder to breathe on top of it. Already, he can feel sweat starting to form on his temples, the back of his neck, tickling his skin.
The guy is just to quick, back on his legs in less time than it takes Harry to blink, eyes cold and hard, throwing his body forward again. Instead of propelling an arm or a leg towards Harry, he stretches out something between his hands, and Harry only realizes what it is when the Soldier has already twisted it around his neck. At the last second, he squeezes two fingers between his throat and the thin wire, trying to hold it away from his windpipe. Harry ducks, propels his body into the wall, but the Winter Soldier is clinging to his back, legs around his waist and arms pulling at the wire and trying to throttle Harry.
Black spots are dancing in front of his eyes already and his lungs are starting to burn, wire beginning to actually cut through his gloves. He pushes against it, needing to get a better grip so he can yank it away from his throat, but one of his hands is trapped between his own body and a strong leg encircling his midriff. Harry’s running out of options and he’s definitely running out of time if he pays attention to the way his innards are clenching together through lack of air. With a last desperate surge of strength, he knocks his head back.
There’s a crack, the sound of breaking plastic accompanied by a dull thud that he hopes is the Soldier’s head hitting the wall. The wire loosens around his neck and he can finally take it and pull it away from him. Harry slips out of the Soldier’s grip, takes a deep, painful breath and then another and ungracefully scrambles to the other side of the corridor. His legs are shaky as he leans against the wall and watches as the Winter Soldier blinks away the pain and brings his non-metallic hand to his face. His mask is split in half, plastic apparently digging uncomfortably into his skin, and he yanks it off, unceremoniously.
And Harry… Harry can tell the exact moment his entire world starts crumbling around him, because –
Because he could never forget this face. The delicate features and high cheekbones, thin but curved lips and small nose and maybe Harry is really going insane, perhaps the lack of air supply to his brain is making him see ghosts, because there’s no way this is Louis. It can’t be Louis, because Harry watched him fall, because it’s Harry’s fault that he is dead and it’s been – God – over seventy years, it can’t –
A loud crash interrupts his thoughts, metal and concrete dust raining down on them before Harry can hear Liam’s tinny voice calling for him. But he can’t look away from this person with Louis’ face and his eyes and –
“Who the hell is Louis?”
A moment later, Harry feels hot pain spread in his belly and it takes him several beats to glance down and see the small knife edged into his body. He grabs the handle and pulls, but it must’ve hit a blood vessel, or an organ, because blood starts flowing and Harry starts to feel light-headed. He watches as Louis, or the Soldier, or whoever the hell he is, lowers his arm, attempting to get to his feet, but Liam is there in his red and gold suit, hovering above the ground, shooting something at him that looks like a dart. Louis drops down and lands in a heap on the floor and Harry can do nothing but stare at his face as consciousness starts to slip away from him and the shimmering red lights fade to black.
to be continued.