The cell is cold and electronic – after the past three fiascos, the architects learned not to bother with concrete, since it would only be used against the guards. Apparently the new design is from Stark Enterprises. Each cell is designed to neutralize the powers of the prisoner inside.
They’re not half bad – he hasn’t been able to escape in the past two months, which is a first.
The newest of his prison stays is also the newest to be built by SHIELD to contain all the super-villains that keep cropping up. Its design is almost flawless in ingenuity. Located in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico, it is suspended in the air by some kind of repulsive system, so even if a criminal were to escape the main structure, they would still fall fifty feet into the water. Known as the Hover by the agents, and the Dump by the inmates, the flying fortress is well-equipped to deal with special powers and abilities.
Warden Gilbert rattles his (electronic) baton across the (electronic) bars of the cells, all lined up in a neat little corridor.
“Time to sleep, sweetie-pies!” He calls into the moonlight. Gilbert has watched one too many movies in his fifty-two years, and is under the impression his job title includes trying to antagonise the inmates. Unfortunately, his wit is similar to Spider-Man’s, in that it doesn’t work on anyone with an IQ above fifty.
Steve Rogers sighs into his pillow and scratches at a mosquito on his neck.
He shares his cell with a small scarecrow of a man called Denzin Smith, some fool who decided the best way to take on the Fantastic Four was to do so using a computer-controlled liquid substance. According to Smith, it managed to get into the Baxter Building plumbing system easily, a clear sign of its creator’s genius. Unfortunately, said creator hadn’t counted on the fact that the liquid was highly combustible, which was really quite a poor property to have when facing the Human Torch.
“You still awake, Rogers?” Smith whispers from the top bunk, his scrawny, pointy face peering over the side.
Steve counts to ten and opens his eyes. “Sure. What do you want?”
“I hear Hamilton’s dirty.”
Smith bobs his head. “That’s right. Narky says-”
“Quiet!” A guard calls from outside.
Smith lowers his voice to a barely audible whisper. “Narky says that if you pay Hamilton right, he’ll give your number to the right people, if you know what I mean. Narky says that he has contacts in high places.”
Steve thinks to himself. Though Narky (real name: Greg Tomoritz, known for attempting to electrocute Wolverine to death) wasn’t always the most reliable source, Steve had suspected Agent Hamilton to be dirty from the start.
“Why are you telling me?” Steve asks nonchalantly.
“I was thinking that if you get out you could...” Smith pauses. “Leave the door open, so to speak. Put a good word in for me when you talk to Hamilton. Say you want me to come with you.”
“Why don’t you just talk to Hamilton himself?”
Smith scoffs. “Hamilton doesn’t agree to just anyone who talks to him. But he’ll say yes to you.” Smith’s eyes gleam in the darkness.
Steve nods. “Fine. I’ll talk to him tomorrow.”
And true to his word, Steve does. Prisoners are carefully categorised here, and so when Steve is brought in to the canteen for lunch with the other Strong ‘Uns, he makes sure to sit as close as possible to where Hamilton is posted.
He eats his mashed potato calmly – trying to ignore the lumps and suspicious green flecks – and sips at his carton of juice. Eventually, just as he’s about to attempt the think-it’s-meat-but-can’t-be-sure, he hears a shuffle and he hears Hamilton’s breath beside his ear.
“Are you feeling at home yet?”
Steve shrugs, inscrutable to any onlookers. “Could do with a bit of a fresh air.”
Hamilton steps away again, just as Warden Gilbert walks into the room. Steve doesn’t look up and hears Gilbert’s footsteps come louder and louder. The room slowly ebbs away into silence.
Steve still doesn’t look up – he pokes at the mystery meat with his plastic fork instead.
“Rogers, I was talkin’ to you.” A hand clamps on Steve’s shoulder and he reacts before he thinks. He stands up and has a death grip on Gilbert’s wrist, about to dislocate the whole arm in an irreparable way, when he’s reminded why he shouldn’t do such things.
The electric shock zaps him into complacency. The cuffs fastened to each prisoner’s wrists are tailored to each individual weakness, or so the slogan says. In reality, the standard issue is one that administers an electric shock when the wearer is misbehaving. The exception is for super-powered prisoners who use electricity to their advantage, and in those cases, a simple paralysing toxin is injected into the bloodstream.
Steve is manhandled back to his cell for detention, which only lasts for an hour or two before he’s scheduled into Sports and Recreation.
In the centre of the Hover-Dump, there is a concrete area the size of a dieting football field, with a basketball hoop and some weights in a corner and rumour has it there used to be an actual basketball before it was used in an unpleasant escape attempt.
Steve does thirty laps of the area, ignoring the threatening glances from some of the others also assigned to Sports and Recreation. There's one group of prisoners, huddled together, who each share a strange tattoo on their neck. It looks like a simple triangle from a distance, but if you get close enough, you can see it's actually a bunch of weird symbols that follow a triangle path. In the centre of the tattoo, there's a block Z.
They look at him with darker expressions than usual as he goes for his thirty-first lap (his record is three hundred and two) and on his thirty-fifth, one of the later ones step into his path.
"You want out?" The voice is gruff and Steve vaguely recognises the man. He's blond and hairy and his muscle-to-fat ratio is suspicious.
Steve folds his arms over his chest.
Taking that as an answer, a skinnier man steps out from the huddle and looks up at Steve. He has a rather emasculating ear piercing, a glittering diamond with a dangling plastic fang attached. Steve tries very hard not to laugh at it."Try to stay awake tonight. They say the stars look good at midnight."
Steve nods, and starts running again.
That night, Steve doesn't watch the stars. Instead, he watches the concrete opposite of the bunk bed. Smith snores contently above and the scratch of the bed sheets is familiar by now. Steve thinks of explosions in a muddy trench, and of undercover missions in dark castles and gloomy forests, and for an hour or so, he pretends that this is all part of an infiltration assignment – that he’s still fighting a black and white battle.
He hears a faint scuffle come from the outside. He doesn't move, and continues to lie on his back, his hands rested on his stomach. Then a loud, blaring alarm comes from all around, a red light flashing from the corridor's ceiling. Steve calmly rolls out of bed and stretches his arms above his head. This isn’t his first prison break.
Smith wakes up with even less grace than usual, almost tumbling out of his bed before catching himself at the last minute. "What's going on?" He exclaims, sleep making his voice deeper than usual.
Steve just gives him a long, steady look.
Hamilton rushes past the cell, seemingly out of breath. But as he races past, his arm snaps out and a small device lands at Steve's feet. Before he can say anything, Hamilton is gone again.
"What's that?" Smith asks loudly. Steve picks it up and turns it over in his hands. There's no button or switch to press, so Steve can't imagine how he's supposed to activate it. Then it beeps, once. He holds it near the cell door experimentally, and sure enough, there's a loud click and the bar cells disappear, like a light being switched off.
Steve steps out first, warily. One step and he's out of the cell and in the corridor. He can feel the other prisoners' watch on his back. The atmosphere is silent and eerie; the calm before the storm.
"Great!" Smith takes a step forward but Steve quickly holds a hand in front of him.
"Wait," Steve commands.
Then Steve swipes the device where the bars should be and there they are again, snapping back to life.
Smith's face turns to outrage as he realises what Steve has done. "Hey!" He cries. "We had a deal!"
"You should have made me shake on it." Steve tells him coldly, and then he's running through the corridor.
He knows that the boarding bay is on the right of the Hover-Dump - as soon as he was hauled in here, he was already planning a route of escape - and so he runs in that direction. At the very least, he knows he can jump into the water and swim to shore if his ride isn't there.
But just as he turns the corner, the final corner before the massive, steel-enforced door looms in front of him, he sees a collection of guards standing there with their lasers and electronic batons and whatever new weapons SHIELD has issued them with.
He stops. The first to see him in the darkness shouts to the others, and now they're all looking and aiming at him. His eyes dart between them.
He’s already devising a strategy, when the gravity abruptly disappears.
His body is pinned to the ceiling and so are all the guards, disorientation making Steve’s head swim. here's a loud whining sound and all Steve can think is that this isn't the first time he's being falling. He uses all the strength in his arms to right himself and push himself away from the ceiling so he can use the dropping Hover to his advantage. He doesn't quite know how, it's not really within the boundaries of physics and the G-force is making his eyes water, but he reaches the door and clings on to the handles with all he's worth.
Then they open from the outside with a slam and he's propelled into the sky.
He risks a look behind and suddenly, the power's back on and the Hover-Dump is hovering once again, all blue lights and concrete walls. But once again, he's falling, his heavy muscle bulk a disadvantage for once.
He looks down and sees the sea coming to greet him with dark waves and cold froth. He curls himself into a ball and tries to make his body go as slack as he can.
He bombs into the water, sinking a few feet into the water before he can move again, bubbles dancing around him. He pulls himself to the surface and keeps just his head above water.
Breathing heavily, he ignores the freezing temperature as a light flickers in the distance. He frowns at its flashes and his mind serves him the reminder of learning Morse code.
Rogers, the light spells out. It doesn't repeat itself and so Steve has to swim to the memory of the light. It's closer than he expected, and he treads water when he reaches a small fishing boat.
He grabs on to the side and though he expects sodden wood, his hand grips steel. There's no-one on board, but once he pulls himself onto the starboard side; he can see the lantern used just a moment before. It’s still warm.
He then sees a fresh pair of clothes, lying on an empty lobster cage. He picks them up and it's too dark to see the pattern but the texture feels good. A bit of stretch with a strong fibre.
He strips his own clothes off and then pulls the new clothes on - it's a uniform of sorts, with a small metal badge on his chest. He can't see the badge's design but there are more pressing things to be concerned with, that much is obvious.
He goes into the tiny cabin; he has to stoop to get inside.
He looks at the control panel - a plan metal board with a few navigating devices and buttons. He sees one that's very clearly out of place - modern and maroon-coloured, it has no label or explanation.
Steve weighs his options and then presses his finger against the button.
Immediately, the floor drops beneath him and he falls down a large black hole.
He hits the surface with enough force to break a normal person’s bones. His eyes snap open and he assesses his surroundings like a good little soldier. He's lying on some sand, on his back, and his ears have popped from a change in pressure. Either he's in the air again or he's deep below sea level - judging on the direction of the chute, he would guess the latter.
He pushes himself up into a standing position and tenses.
He's in a very simple room - like an arena without the audience. The walls are metal concrete and the floor is covered in mucky-coloured sand.
He clasps his hands at the small of his back and stands with his feet straight. He waits.
Just a few moments later, a voice sounds from a speaker in a corner.
Steve straightens even more at the sound of the voice. "Reporting for duty." He says. It must’ve been the right thing to say, because a moment of worrisome silence later, the voice speaks again, hissing sadistically.
A mechanical hiss from behind Steve, and he whirls around just in time to see two metal panels slide away from each other. Two figures walk forward, their faces impassive and their arms slung behind one shoulder. They wear a dark green uniform and when Steve looks down, he realises he's wearing similar attire.
Steve frowns, and then he sees that each is holding tightly onto a glittering silver rope that is taut with force.
He waits, an element of curiosity taming his battle sense, and yet another figure comes from the darkness, tied in between the two guards but lagging back.
It's red and gold and metal, the shape of a man with a bright light nestled in its chest. It strains against the silvery rope tied around its neck, and its faceplate thrashes from side to side as it tries to get free.
It would be impossible not to recognise the famous Iron Man.
Even Steve, usually oblivious to human civilization, knows about Tony Stark, the man back from the dead with a -literally- shiny new heart. His escapades in the suit and out of it are famous across media and infamous in the criminal underground.
But Steve focuses and instead of seeing the billionaire industrialist or the heroic playboy, he just sees the gold faceplate, with its two glowing slits for eyes.
The doors slide together again, and a tiny light above turns to green once they're firmly shut.
Then the two guards make the mistake off turning the rope off. As soon as its light has faded, they back away, but they're not fast enough.
Like a reflex, Iron Man straightens his arms horizontally and two beams - repulsors, Steve remembers vaguely - shoot out from his palms. The two men are thrown against opposing walls before they can cry out. They're unconscious by the time they slide to the floor.
Then Iron Man turns his attention to Steve.
Steve tenses, crouching ever so slightly.
Iron Man raises his palm so Steve can see straight at the glowing circle of light there.
"Don't suppose you want to go quietly, Blondie?"
Steve's jaw tightens and his hands rolls into fists.
Iron Man sighs. "Alright."
A high-pitched whine sounds from his hand, and Steve jumps out of the way just in time. A second later and the beam of light would've hit him square in the chest.
Iron Man looks ready to fire again, but again, Steve is too quick for the second shot and he rolls away with the momentum. In an instance, he’s at Iron Man’s side and he makes an instinctive grab for his arm before he can fire at Steve.
“Hey, big guy, that's personal property!" Iron Man’s other arm swings around and Steve ducks out of the way, pulling Iron Man down onto the floor. He crashes against the sand and Steve uses the opportunity to tighten his grip on the wrist.
The metal doesn't even move underneath his hand – Iron Man uses Steve's surprise to jump up and drag Steve into the air. Steve's eyes widen at the beams come out Iron Man’s feet and makes a mental note: okay, so he’d forgotten than Iron Man can fly. A careless mistake, but not beyond repair.
Iron Man then starts spinning in a tight circle and Steve is spun around like a fairground attraction. He keeps his grip on the arm though, and after a moment of unsuccessful rotating, Iron Man stops suddenly - Steve is thrown into the wall.
Steve bites back a groan and gets back up again.
“Not that I don’t admire your courage, bucko, but-”
The name reminds Steve of painful memories and sharing a piece of bread next to a fire so he leaps at Iron Man before he can think twice about it. His hands latch around his metal neck and he doesn’t care if the metal’s too strong, he’ll find a way to break it.
Iron Man jumps up and his foot repulsors start up again. Steve can see the manoeuvre coming before it happens and he uses momentum to twist around to Iron Man’s back, still clinging on like a madman as Iron Man flips upwards. If Steve had stayed where he was, he would’ve been slammed into the ceiling.
By some strange miracle, his tightened fingers land on a tiny lever – so tiny, Steve doesn’t even realise he’s done anything until the face plate pops open with a loud hiss.
Startled, the foot repulsors stop and they both fall to the floor with a crash.
Steve is first to get up and he leaps on top of Iron Man, using his arms to pin his robot head against the floor.
Except it’s not just Iron Man anymore.
He must’ve hit an emergency lever or something, because it’s a normal man’s face that looks up at him, with a scruffy goatee and big dark eyes with a bleeding gash on his forehead. Steve vividly, and then guiltily, hopes he was the one who caused that gash; it would be nice to know he’d done some damage.
Suddenly, Tony Stark is a lot harder to kill than Iron Man.
Steve hears a high-pitched whine to his side. He looks to the sound and he sees the blue circle flicker and the metal fingers curl around it. He tenses, for the show must go on, and lets his body go slack.
He looks back. The faceplate has clamped back down and the human face is gone. He locks gaze with the robotic faceplate.
He doesn’t give any sign that he’s given up. But he knows, he knows, that Iron Man understands, or at least is trying to, even though he can’t see past the blue lights and the shiny gold anymore.
As the bright beam fires, Steve almost feels glad.
He wakes up in another cell – but this one has a pillow, and toilet roll, and a little blue toothbrush. Toothpaste is apparently a luxury he hasn’t yet earned. He stretches – muscles tense, sure, how could they not be, but overall, not too bad.
He stands up straight, and looks directly at the flashing red light in the corner. He doesn’t move until a key rattles in the cell door and the concrete swings open with a creak.
“That was an impressive fight.” A German accent drawls from the doorway and Steve tenses before remembering that a German accent doesn’t always equate to a bad guy anymore. He’s covered by a purple mask made of fabric and he wears a gold crown and he stands like he’s won a war.
Steve stays silent.
“My name is Zemo,” he says, flanked by two big burly men. “I heard you were up for sale.”
Steve nods curtly.
“What’s your price?”
“A uniform and a mission, sir.”
Underneath that purple hood, Steve swears he can almost see Zemo’s smile.
Zemo shows him to where Steve will be sleeping, and explains on the way that Steve is currently twenty miles under water, inside one of the best submarines in the world, designed by his personal engineers. Eventually, they reach a small room which is labelled Rogers.
The label looks like it has been replaced a number of times.
As Zemo tells him when canteen hours are and where the transport pods are, Steve can’t help but think this is awfully like the prison he just escaped from.
There’s a mirror in his room; Steve examines himself in it. His hair is growing out again – but he’ll be able to find a razor to crop it back, he’s sure. He notices the shiny badge on his chest, and he pulls it up towards his face. He recognises the triangle of symbols, with the Z in the middle. He pushes it away again.
His first assignment is a simple procedure – shake up a few feathers, cause a bit of destruction, send a message.
Under his command, he gets two piles of muscle who say their names are John and Derek but since Steve can’t tell the difference, he just points at the one he wants and shouts an instruction. He also gets the brains behind the operation, a tiny man called Timmy who wants to be known as the Mole Man before Steve points out that’s sort of already been taken.
Zemo tells him in the briefing that any collateral victims caught in the crossfire won’t reflect badly on Steve’s record; Steve takes this as an encouragement, but he tries not to see it that way.
Steve goes in first, with a machine gun, and starts shooting at the ceiling of the charity ball. Some of the city’s most rich and famous and famous are there, drinking wine while they share in their hypocrisy of giving to the poor.
“Everybody down on the floor!” He yells through his mask, the colour of his uniform with protective goggles and a filter mask. He fires the machine again just to prove the necessity.
Everyone gets down on the floor. Steve gives the signal for John and Derek to come in as well, also bearing impressive firearms. Once the rich kids are collected safely in between the three of them, Steve calls for Timmy to come in and start hacking their credit cards and debit cards and whatever new-fangled technology they have to store their money.
About half an hour later, Timmy’s almost done. But then a loud voice sounds from the front door. “This is the NYPD. Surrender now.”
Steve whirls around and sure enough, about seven policemen appear on the other side of the glass wall. He quickly calculates the odds and then, with a theatrical sigh, he raises his arms in surrender. He doesn’t let go of the gun’s trigger, though.
Half of the agents relax visibly – the others, presumable jaded enough to know better, keep their guard up.
Steve calls out. “We’re at a stalemate, ladies and gentlemen.” The police don’t move – neither do the hostages – proving his statement correct. “Here’s my proposition.”
“We don’t negotiate with criminals.” One officer– a woman, judging by the build – snaps before he can finish.
He smiles gently. “Of course not. But I’m sure you wouldn’t want New York’s finest to be killed in the crossfire when it could’ve all been avoided so easily. Derek!” He calls, keeping his eyes on the agents.
“Yeah, Rogers?” The gruff voice calls.
“Come here.” Steve beckons and Derek coerce. “You too, John.”
They flank him now, and the agents tense.
“You two will be our compromise. To show we mean no harm.” They both look at him, but Steve only nods encouragingly, the fake smile plastered on his face. “Go on then.”
Confused, they follow his orders, and walk slowly towards the agents, who instinctively turn their guns to the two. Steve takes his chance and whips out an explosive from his belt. He throws it between Derek and John, where it smashes through the glass and into the middle of the agents.
Then, he turns away and grabs Timmy and whatever electronic device he’s using to steal the money. He pushes him forward to the back exit as he hears the explosion and the gunfire that follows. “Go!” Timmy doesn’t look back as he runs through the door and to the pre-destined meeting place.
Then, using his gun, Steve shoots a bullet hole Z at the wall.
The second mission doesn’t go quite so well – in the middle of robbing a nondescript bank, the X-Men show up and Steve is nearly beheaded by Cyclops. Steve manages to escape (his team-mates aren’t so lucky) and expects a fierce punishment when he reports back to Zemo.
But surprisingly, Zemo isn’t angry. He simply claps Steve on the shoulder and says, “We are making sure they hear the message.” Steve clearly looks surprised at the complacency, for Zemo continues. “You must see each battle as a victory, Rogers. I do, because I am an optimist.”
Steve privately thinks a better word would be crazy, but he just nods and pretends to understand Zemo’s train of thought.
The third and the fourth and the fifth missions pass, and by the sixth, Steve’s face is featured on the eight ‘o clock news.
He spends his nights dreaming in bright colours and black outlines, and wakes up wishing it were that easy.
The tenth assignment is on-base, Steve is informed. He follows Zemo into the deepest part of the submarine, and Zemo simply opens a door, and then another, and Steve follows his arm into a steel room. It's rusty and there are blood marks on the floor. Then Steve sees what's in the middle of the room.
She's tied to a chair, and her blonde hair tumbles over her black mask. If her costume wasn't instantly recognizable, Steve doesn't think he'd be able to identify Ms. Marvel, her face is so bruised and damaged. There’s impressive swelling around her right cheekbone, and her mask is torn above the left eye, the fabric peeling away from her clammy skin.
He keeps his expression impassive, because he knows what Zemo expects him to do and he really doesn't want to do it. He nods though, and Zemo looks satisfied, since he shuts the door behind him.
She looks up defiantly. "I won't tell you anything, you hear me?"
He doesn't say anything. He walks over to the small flickering green light in the top corner of the room, and he pulls a handkerchief out of his pocket. He flings it over the small camera.
Steve turns back to her. She looks at him with a bloody lip. "Bring it, big boy."
Steve shakes his head, and puts a finger on his lips and then points back at the camera. She frowns, but thankfully stays silent. He slaps his hand sharply, and then pulls at her chair so it scrapes loudly on the metal floor. She clues on to what he’s doing straightaway, and grunts loudly enough for the speakers to hear.
Then, sound effects completed, he reaches around and unties the knots holding her to the chair. As soon as her wrists are free, she stands, her fists ready to fight.
He tries not to roll his eyes - being helpful is obviously overrated. He motions from her to him, finishing the gesture with another finger on his lips. She nods, and the last thing he sees is a blast of photons and light.
He wakes up much later - Zemo is standing above him with his hands on his hips. "I must say, I was hoping for a little bit more information."
Steve sits up and rubs his head for good measure. "Sorry, sir."
"No matter," Zemo offers his hand. "There'll be a next time."
Steve fights the urge to protest vehemently. "I don't think I'm cut out for interrogation, sir."
Zemo tilts his head to the side. "No?"
"Fine." Zemo doesn't press the matter.
Steve has a nightmare that night – this time, he’s the one in the interrogation chair.
Three months of assignments and missions and tasks and Steve still can’t feel quite comfortable under Zemo’s control.
“Rogers!” Zemo seems pleased. Steve walks closer and sees that Zemo is clutching a piece of paper in his hands. Steve recognizes it as the prize of his fourteenth assignment. “I’ve finally found it.”
“Found what, sir?” Steve asks, though he already has an idea.
“The perfect weapon against the Avengers,” Zemo’s whole body language is brimming with anticipation and glee. Steve can’t help but be worried. “Follow me, Rogers.”
And so Steve does, through one corridor after the next while Zemo talks.
“You’re the only one I could trust with this, Rogers. Only two months and you’ve proven yourself above anyone else I’ve ever employed. And you don’t cost a thing!” Zemo seems to think this the best part. “You’re my lieutenant. And you’re going to be by my side when I take down the Avengers.”
“Why the Avengers, sir?”
Zemo looks at him; it’s hard to tell because of the mask, but Steve could swear he’s grinning. “Because the Avengers are the public.” At Steve’s confused eyebrow crease, Zemo continued. “As much as the people hate the mutants, or the Fantastic Four, or Alpha Flight, or whatever new team crops up, the Avengers will always be the last hope. And this is why they must be destroyed first.”
Steve nods, though an uneasy feeling is settling in his stomach. “It makes sense, sir.”
“That it does, Rogers. That it does.”
Zemo stops in front of a door – he types quick numbers into a keypad and then produces a tiny blade from his pocket. With one fast swipe, he slices the pad of his thumb and hold the weeping wound above a tiny sensor Steve hadn’t noticed before.
With a beep and a green flash of the light, the door swings open by electronic command. Zemo steps inside and a curious Steve can only follow him.
“I know about your origins, Rogers,” Zemo says confidently. Steve fights to control his breathing and his features stable. “I know what they injected you with. And I know that it turns lesser men into monsters.”
Steve can imagine what’s coming next – the accusation of being a spy, the implications that he must be a good guy if the serum worked in his favour. He prepares to either fight or fly.
“This is why I trust you so much.” Zemo says. Steve can’t help but frown, but luckily Zemo is turning away from him, so he can’t see that change in Steve’s expression. “Because it proves that this mission is for the greater good.”
Steve breathes a silent sigh of relief – for once, he is glad of Zemo’s deluded illusions and ideals.
“And so this is why I trust I can show this to you.” Zemo flicked a switch and a spotlight flickered and then steadied. It revealed, from the darkness, a large metal box, rectangular and a few feet long.
Zemo unclasps the catches holding it closed and flip the lid open.
For all the anticipation, Steve has to admit he’s not that impressed.
It’s just a miniature missile launcher, really. A bazooka, maybe.
Zemo picks it up with the greatest care Steve has ever seen him treat an object with before. He gazes upon it with admiration.
Steve clears his throat.
"This took me three years to find. I had to kill seventeen people and defeat three supposedly-mythical creatures. I had to travel to another realm." Zemo put it back down in the box. "And now, I just need to right energy source to power it."
"...I'm guessing it doesn't take batteries."
Zemo turns to Steve. "It requires a type of battery, I suppose. A very delicate, powerful and magical battery."
"Magical?" Steve gapes.
"Yes. And I even know where you're going to find it."
Steve creeps across the rooftops, until, according to his portable GPS , he is on top of the right one. Hammer Industries.
He scales over the side using grappling hooks and sturdy rope until he counts the fifth floor. With one swing, he kicks the window and launches into the room along with the broken glass. He rolls with the momentum and eventually stops still in a crouching position.
He tenses, waiting for the alarm. But true to his word, Timmy has managed to disable the alarms and the cameras - but only for an hour. Steve now has to be quick. His backpack slung across his shoulders, he creeps through the rooms.
Most of them are workshops and laboratories, with delicate instruments that Steve has to be careful to avoid with his bulky shoulders and swinging arms. He makes it to the main hallway, and, once again using the navigator on his wrist, crept to the right room.
Even if he hadn't been told the room number, he would've probably been able to guess. It is locked, with various symbols warning any intruders of their imminent death if they dare to venture inside. He begins to pick one of the three manual locks, leaving the electronic keypad for last.
He is halfway through unlocking the second when a robotic cough sounds from his right.
He snaps into attack mode and whirls around to see - is he really surprised? - Iron Man. He’s hovering a foot off the ground, which makes Steve highly suspect he is only doing it to show off.
“You’re breaking into Hammer Industries?” Iron Man makes a tutting sound. “I’m not sure whether to be grateful or offended.”
“If you’re relieved, will you let me get on with it?” Steve replies cheekily, and is immediately surprised at himself.
He laughs. “That’s not how this works, you know.”
Steve realises that with his face blacked out for camouflage and his hair more grown out, Iron Man doesn’t recognise Steve. And why should he? He probably deals with three villains a day.
“What are you doing here, anyway?” Steve finds himself asking. The clock is ticking down, but still he participates in this unnecessary pre-battle charade. “Isn’t Hammer your sworn enemy?”
“Blondie, if I counted all my sworn enemies, that make a very long list.”
Steve doesn’t react to the nickname. He refuses to.
“But just for your enlightenment, I should inform you that whatever techie you hired to take down the security system, they missed out my hidden camera system.”
“You have a hidden camera system... In someone else’s factory?” Steve frowns. “I’m not understanding the logic.”
Iron Man shrugs. “Just to make sure Hammer’s not trying to build an Iron Man copy again... It ended so poorly last time he tried.”
“Oh?” Steve slowly reaches for the photon gun in his hip holster.
He can’t tell whether Iron Man notices or not because of that damn faceplate. He’s a twitch away from pulling it out and firing a blast at that glowing chest plate, but then Iron Man speaks.
“Is your boss listening?”
Steve freezes as he realises that Iron Man obviously does recognise him. Then he remembers a question has been asked and he shakes his head. “No.”
The gold head nods. “You know Carol told me what you did.”
“Carol?” Steve repeats.
“You probably know her as Ms. Marvel.”
For some reason, Steve finds himself blushing in embarrassment – hopefully the black paint and the dim lighting hide it.
"It made me wonder whose side you really want to be on."
Whatever complacency Steve was feeling before, it was gone. His hand snaps for the gun and it's straight out in front of him in a split-second.
Unfortunately, Iron Man has obviously had the same idea, and his palm repulsor is stretched out a foot from Steve's nose.
"Don't do this." Iron Man says in one last plea. "Come with me."
Steve closes his eyes and drops his head in pretending shame. He waits until he can hear the repulsor's whine fade. He pulls the trigger with only a hint of regret.
Steve has never had an interest in science, or mechanics, or any kind of subject which would explain why the photons send the suit into shut down mode. But it does, and that's all that matters. He steps over the Iron Man's fallen form, and continues to pick the locks. Finally, he enters the number password and the door hisses open.
There's no doubt as to what he's supposed to be stealing.
It's a small tube that glows all kinds of colours. If Steve had a warmer heart, he could easily watch the strange light all day, mystified. But he doesn't, so he marches forward and drops the backpack from his shoulders. Using the special forceps he had been issued with earlier, he places the tube - more of a cylinder, really - into the pre-prepared casing.
He zips the backpack back up and hoists it onto his shoulder. He chances one more look back at Iron Man. Then he sees the eye slits flicker back to light, and he's gone, out of the window and onto the streets below.
Zemo is beside himself when Steve returns, grimy and sweaty since he decided to run all the way back to the boarding area on shore.
“Finally!” He cries, holding the case that contains the mystery tube aloft. “Finally, we can begin.”
Steve actually wants to sleep for a bit before they begin anything, but he keeps his mouth shut and his expression impassive. “When?” He asks.
“We will leave at ten hundred hours, Rogers.” Zemo says with a wicked excitement in his voice. “Be ready.”
So because he doesn’t know how to be ready for an unknown task, Steve goes to sleep. His dreams involve a dash of red and gold on top of the black and the white and the blood.
At ten hundred hours, Zemo climbs into a transport pod, and orders Steve to drive it while Zemo calibrates the magic battery thing and the big bazooka thing. Steve can’t help but think he should know more about what their entire mission depends on.
“The destination is already programmed into the pod,” Zemo tells him. “You just need to stop it from bumping into any sharks.”
But luckily, the sharks all seem to be too afraid of the speeding pod to even give it a second thought, never mind get in its way. Steve chances a long at the coordinates programmed into the navigation a few hours into the journey.
“New York?” He asks in surprise. “Surely that’s a bit high-profile?”
“It’s where the Avengers are based.” Zemo’s tone turns defensive and waspish. “Were you not listening to the plan?”
“Of course,” Steve says carefully. “Sorry, I forgot. That’s all.”
Using the windscreen’s reflection, Steve watches Zemo nod in approval and then turn back to the miniature cannon.
“So what is that?” Before Zemo can misinterpret this as more impudence, Steve adds, “I mean, does it have a name?”
“It used to be called a Rachtor, but after today,” Zemo looked down at it. “It will be known as the Zemo-Zooka.”
Well, Steve had to give him props for creativity.
“Is there any back up?” Steve suddenly asks – he can’t remember any others getting into the other available pods.
“We won’t need back up.” Zemo says confidently. “I just need you to guard me and the Zemo-Zooka, and we will take care of the rest.”
Zemo-Zooka or not, the plan doesn’t exactly fill Steve with confidence. But he keeps his mouth shut and just a hour later, the navigator is beeping that they’re close to their destination.
Steve begins to drive the pod up a secluded part of the coastline, but then Zemo stops him with an unsettling clamp on his shoulder.
“Oh no, Rogers,” he points to a switch on the dashboard. “It can fly.”
And so it does; shooting out of the water like a torpedo and then settling into a comfortable path, horizontal above the city.
A crackle comes through on the radio. “Unauthorised airspace... Please state intentions... Aircraft information...” The speech is interspersed with poor connection fuzz.
But then Zemo reaches forward and holds down a button underneath the radio speaker. “We are here to conquer your city and then your world!”
Steve really doesn’t think he has enough self-preservation for the both of them.
It’s a relief when the pod survives to start spiraling down in a controlled descent, instead of being shot out of the sky by SHIELD. He can hear muffled screams as they land on the pavement – luckily not on top of anyone.
The glass ceiling snaps open and Zemo stands proudly. He brandishes the Zemo-Zooka and proclaims, “Where are your famous Avengers?”
With not much else of a choice, Steve jumps out and prepares for a fight as the people start running away as fast as they can. He keeps a photo gun on his left and a normal pistol on his right – with crossing arms, he pulls them both out and slides the safety catch off both.
Zemo speaks quickly to Steve, pointing to an average-looking building opposite of where they’ve landed. “In there,” he commands. “Is the only weapon that could possibly hinder the Zemo-Zooka. Strength versus weakness. Once we have defeated the Avengers, we will take it and destroy it.”
Steve nods. “Yes, sir,” he says, if only to indulge Zemo’s already-dangerous fantasies. Then he watches the skies for any sign of the Avengers.
But the Avengers are a no show for the first ten minutes.
Steve watches warily as Zemo grows more and more impatient.
“Fine,” he says after eight minutes of waiting more than he’d been expecting. “We’ll have to get their attention another way.”
So he pulls out another gun from his holster – it looks like just a normal pistol – and he aims it at the clueless taxi driving in their direction.
Steve’s jaw tightens as Zemo pulls the trigger and a bolt of electricity fires from the barrel. It hits the car just above the license plate and the force alone catapults the car onto its roof, crumpling on the road. Steve dreads to think what the high-voltage charge is doing to the passengers inside.
Zemo twists the barrel ninety degrees to the left, and fires at another car. This time, the pistol fires a jagged line of flame, and the owner has just enough time to leap out of her car before the whole thing ignites into an inferno.
Zemo twists the gun again, and this time, a random vehicle suffers from a jet of ice, which freezes the entire car and locks the people inside.
Again and again, he fires the gun until the street is lined with screams and fire and ice and littered cars.
But then the school bus rounds the corner.
Zemo turns to it slowly. He puts his gun away.
Steve is wonderfully surprised and utterly relieved, until Zemo hoists the Zemo-Zooka back into his hands.
The bright yellow bus, in an attempt to avoid the oncoming disster, twists, but ends up sliding sideways on the spilt oil from some other car.
As it skids towards them, Steve acts instinctively and jumps down in front of it.
He braces himself and as the bus comes closer and closer, he holds his hands out flat. They collide together, and while the bus is strong, Steve is stronger. The metal crumples a bit from where his hands meet it, but it stops all the same.
From inside the bus, he can hear the children’s shrieking.
He turns back to Zemo.
Zemo cocks his head to the side – the cannon in his hands doesn’t falter. “What’s the problem, Rogers?” Standing on a car’s roof, he seems even more megalomaniac than usual.
“They’re...” Steve falters lamely. “They’re just kids.”
The screaming in the bus fades and Steve feels their absorbed gaze on his neck. He doesn’t move – as if that could calm Zemo.
“You misunderstand me, Rogers.” He snaps the cannon skywards and before Steve can even flinch, he presses the trigger into the sky.
At first, Steve is confused. There’s no way the missile is designed for mass destruction – choosing a random target from the sky seems reckless, even for Zemo.
But then Steve sees the red and gold blur in the sky just in time to see it collide with the bright gold beam.
“No!” Steve whirls round, back to Zemo. He tries to ignore the sound of the explosion, the ringing a second late.
“Would you have preferred the children?” Zemo isn’t a man of many words, but the ones he does say are cold and calculated.
So of course Steve can’t say anything to that and with one well-placed kick, he sends the school bus spinning towards the newly-arrived and waiting police cars.
Then he turns back to Zemo. “So what-”
For a second, Steve thinks Zemo is shaking from laughter. But then he sees the lightning coming from the sky and poking Zemo in the chest.
He whirls around, and yes, finally, here come the Avengers.
He rolls out of the way of an explosive arrow from Hawkeye, roosting on the roof of a building to the right. A poison dart zips past his ear and he spots Black Widow, her red hair rolling as she somersaults over a broken taxi.
Thor is slowly pacing down from the sky, his hammer by his side and his cape flowing dramatically in the wind he summoned.
And then the Hulk, green bulk of rage, comes storming through the cars that Black Widow so nimbly avoided – he sends them into lampposts and Steve wonders vaguely whether the damage caused is really worth Hulk’s victories.
He stops a few feet away, his massive feet skidding in the road and kicking up a scatter of dust. He growls at Steve, and Steve braces himself.
But then Zemo gets up again, and his movements are jagged, distorted and wild. Steve imagines being electrocuted by a Norse god will do that to you. He wields the strange-looking cannon earnestly, and points it straight at the Hulk. “Want to do an experiment, doctor?” Zemo goads.
The Hulk roars and leaps at Zemo.
Steve prepares to run – once Zemo’s been literally flattened, there’s no way he can take on the Hulk, never mind all of the Avengers.
But the cannon fires – a jet of bright green this time – and it lands squarely in the middle of the Hulk’s chest.
Steve watches – a mixture of terror and victory – as the Hulk shrinks and shrinks until all that’s left is a small, weedy man with too-big shorts and a horrified look on his face.
Now, Zemo actually is shaking with laughter. The rest of the Avengers suddenly don’t look too sure of themselves now.
But then Thor lifts Mjolnir into the air and booms, “Avengers assemble!” He runs towards Zemo, the hammer spinning around in his hand faster and faster with each spin until it’s a grey blur.
Zemo doesn’t even flinch. He lifts the cannon a third time and a bright blue beam shoots out this time, sending Thor tumbling backwards.
But when Thor gets up again, Mjolnir doesn’t come with him. It’s been flung a few feet away, and when Thor beckons it with his godly power, it doesn’t even twitch. It’s encased in blue force field of sorts, and when Thor tries to pick up his beloved hammer, it stops his fingers coming within a metre of the handle.
Thor looks at Zemo with the most terrifying fury Steve has ever seen – he decides he never, ever, wants to take a Norse god’s hammer away from him as long as he lives.
“You will pay for this, Zemo,” Thor rumbles darkly.
“Oh, but,” yet again Zemo raises the cannon. Steve notices that Zemo is breathing heavily, though whether it’s from exhaustion or elation, he can’t tell. “I don’t think I will.”
He pulls the trigger and this time a purple beam is ejected from the cannon – Steve watches mutely at it hits Hawkeye this time.
Immediately, Hawkeye’s bow is flung away into the air, where, with a snap and a crackle, it disintegrates in front of their very eyes.
Hawkeye looks utterly horrified. “You monster,” he hisses.
All Steve can think is that Zemo’s managed to piss off every single one of the Avengers – in anyone’s experience, this is not a good idea.
Zemo seems to realise this, but he waves the cannon at them anyway. “Stay back. That isn’t the only thing this cannon can do.”
Thor advances. “I do not need Mjolnir to crush your skull.”
“And if you think I only have one way to shoot you,” Hawkeye raises his arm straight, and a miniature crossbow raises and aims from his wrist.
The man that used to be Hulk stands up as well. He raises his hands in a pathetic fighting stance. “Bring it, you Nazi.”
“Fine,” Zemo snarls. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you.” He pulls on a lever on the side of the barrel.
Thor takes a step forward, and Hawkeye tenses his arrow. The ex-Hulk looks around for something to use as a weapon.
“I have taken away your strengths,” Zemo spits. “Without them, you are nothing.”
“Actually,” a familiar, robotic voice sounds from directly above him. Steve looks up and is mortified to find that he’s relieved to see the red and gold metal man. “I’d beg to differ.”
Zemo looks up, clearly startled even though he has fabric to mask that kind of emotion. “I destroyed you.”
“You think I only have one suit?” Iron Man shakes his head. “Please.”
Zemo raises the cannon. “I can destroy every one you have.”
“I’d rather you didn’t.” Iron Man holds his palm straight, and the light there brightens.
In one last act at recovering his dignity, Zemo finally remembers Steve is still there. "Rogers!" He commands. "Do something."
Zemo isn't the only one looking at him expectantly, Steve realizes, but he tries to keep his gaze from drifting up past Zemo to the hero hovering above. "Sure."
There’s an awful moment of silence where nobody moves.
Steve knows he has to act fast, whatever he does. So fast he is - in a split second, he punches the side of the car Zemo is standing on. Just as he predicted, Zemo loses his balance and falls as the car spins away, just as a reflexive arrow from Hawkeye zooms over where his head would have been. Steve catches Zemo and steadies him with one arm, catching the Zemo-Zooka with the other hand.
"When I said there wasn't back-up..." Zemo hisses to Steve. "I lied." He presses a button on his belt, and immediately, ten pods come flying over the city skyline. Steve gulps.
Iron Man starts calling out instructions. "Bruce, can you Hulk back?"
The ex-Hulk shakes his head sorrowfully.
"Okay, get out of the way and see if you can contact anyone in the area. Thor!" The blond looks up.
"Can I kill the purple Nazi?" Thor asks testily.
"Go for it." Iron Man's robotic voice sounds sadistically satisfied. Thor lunges for Zemo, who darts out of Steve's help and behind a car. Steve dodges the furious god, who luckily doesn't seem to notice him, too preoccupied with blind rage for the one who took his beloved hammer away.
"I've got the muscle man." Steve looks back to see Hawkeye has produced a cross bow from somewhere, and the arrow is aimed directly between Steve's eyes. Steve freezes.
"No, you and Natasha take care of the pods." Iron Man directs. "Me and Blondie are going to find a way to take down Zemo and that cannon." Steve looks at his hands and realises that when Zemo had gone scampering away from Thor's rage, he had taken the cannon with him.
Hawkeye and Black Widow both have a sceptical expression on their faces, but they follow Iron Man's orders with only one muttered curse from Hawkeye.
Steve turns to Iron Man. "I thought we were on different sides."
The face plate opens and it's Tony Stark looking at him now. "You sure about that?"
But then Steve sees an advancing pod from behind Tony, and he yells out a warning as a blast comes from a hole in the hull. Instinctively, Steve jumps at Iron Man and yanks on his floating foot. The blast flies over head as they both crash to the floor.
"Thanks," Tony says, already getting up. He doesn't even need to sit up before holding his hand flat and blasting the pod back. "But I have a question."
Steve grabs a discarded car door and holds it in front of him as another pod shoots another blast. In the distance, he can see Black Widow jumping on top of one and punching down, straight through the glass roof. Hawkeye is firing explosive arrows at a rapid rate, but more and more pods keep arriving, more than Steve ever thought there were.
"Shoot." Steve says, but then amends hastily. "Not literally. Wait, actually-" He points at an advancing pod and a tiny missile flies from Tony's shoulder.
"Why is Zemo here?" Tony’s tone turns more urgent.
"He wants to get rid of you," Steve said, twirling the make-shift shield around to deflect another blast. "He thinks you're the biggest threat to whatever plan he has next."
"That's strangely flattering," Tony replies with a smirk. "But why is he here? This street? Why doesn’t he just come to Avenger’s Mansion?"
Steve frowns, and then remembers. He points to the building across the street, the same one Zemo had indicated earlier. "In there. Something about it being the only thing that could defeat the Zemo-Zooka."
"Right." Then Tony pauses. "Zemo-Zooka?"
Steve rolls his eyes. "He's original."
Steve suddenly realizes that he really shouldn't be bantering with the enemy in such a friendly manner, and then he realises that this is the second time it has happened.
Tony seems to realise the same thing, and he grins.
“Thanks, Blondie.” The faceplate snaps back down. “Want to come with?” Iron Man stands up and holds out his metal hand.
Steve ignores it, standing up of his own accord. “Let’s do this.”
The building itself is a jewellers, which Steve thinks is a pretty strange place to be hiding an immensely powerful weapon. They run in and the owner jumps up from behind the counter, wielding a huge shotgun. He aims it at Steve, and then Iron Man, and then Steve again. He obviously can't decide whether Steve is a good guy or Iron Man is a bad guy.
Iron Man holds his hands up. "We're trying to stop this. Promise. But maybe you can help us."
The man narrows his eyes. "What do you want?"
"Does a Rachtor sound familiar to you?" Steve asks, suddenly remembering the original name of the device. The man frowns, and shakes his head.
Iron Man looks around. "JARVIS, have a look. Does any of this look particularly Rachtor-defeating?"
Steve frowns, and looks around. The owner looks just as confused as Steve, so Steve presumes he's not called Jarvis either. He's about to ask when Iron Man exclaims in triumph.
He walks over to the counter, and taps at the glass cabinet underneath. "How much is that one?"
The owner looks to wear the metal finger is pointing. "The Freescha? Twenty two thousand."
Steve's eyes widen, but he doesn't say anything. Hopefully, Iron Man knows what he's doing.
"Great, I'll take it." Iron Man says. "My assistant will send you the money at some point in the next twenty four hours."
The owner stiffens. "I'm afraid we'll need a deposit at the very least."
Iron Man simply raises his hand, and the whine suggests his repulsor is charging up again. "Really?"
The owner hurriedly reaches underneath the counter and nearly throws the multi-coloured jewel at iron Man's chest. "Take it and leave please."
If Zemo thinks the Avengers are the best-loved superhero team around, Steve can only wonder how the X-Men are treated.
"How did you know it was that one?" Steve asks as they step back out into the street. A quick look shows Hawkeye and Black Widow back to back, shooting at the surrounding pods. Various crashed pods already line the street, along with quite a few unconscious people wearing the same uniform as Steve.
"This is no time to go tiara shopping, Stark!" Hawkeye yells as he throws his crossbow to the ground - obviously out of arrows - and favours a pistol instead.
"I'm about to save your ass, Barton, so shut up!" Iron Man snaps back. In the sky, Steve can see a fast-moving blur that looks suspiciously like Ms. Marvel blasting light in all directions. Iron Man to Steve. "JARVIS found an interesting energy signature - one very similar to the one that cannon is using."
Iron Man holds up his hand and shoots a beam at the quickly-dwindling numbers of the pods. In fact, between Ms Marvel in the air and the rest of the Avengers on the ground, there's only a few left.
Steve picks up a discarded blaster and starts pulling the trigger at whatever pods get in his line of sight. Within a few moments, though it feels much longer, the battle is over, and Zemo is nowhere to seen. Though Iron man has been clutching it expectantly, the jewel is yet to be of use.
The SHIELD Helicarrier looms above as agents start coming down to clear up the mess, and Ms Marvel lands next to Tony, who has once again taken off his faceplate.
“You?” She says harshly, looking straight at Steve. He looks uncomfortably away. She turns to Tony. “SHIELD never mentioned anything about an infiltration of Zemo’s forces.”
“He’s not a SHIELD agent, Carol.” Tony says. Steve desperately wants to get away, but he doesn’t know where Zemo is and he doesn’t trust the suspicious SHIELD agents to just let him go if he asks nicely.
“So he just decided to grow a conscience?” Ms Marvel looks very sceptical and Steve doesn’t blame her. He’s sceptical of himself right now.
Black Widow – apparently her name is Natasha – has gone to find the ex-Hulk. Hawkeye starts complaining about his destroyed bow.
Tony rolls his eyes. “I’ll make you a new one, Barton, if you just shut up.”
Hawkeye’s face brightens considerable. “With lasers?”
Tony sighs. “Fine.”
“Score!” Hawkeye crows in triumph.
Steve subconsciously touches the photon gun in his holster, the beginnings of an escape plan in his mind.
Tony frowns. “Hang on, incoming call.” His faceplate is back in place suddenly, and he’s still for a moment while they look at him. Then his face is back again. “That was Thor,” he looks at Ms Marvel and Hawkeye. “Zemo’s gone – no idea where.”
Ms Marvel huffs, and sends another suspicious glance in Steve’s direction. He looks at the ground, and that look seals the deal. In a heartbeat, the photon gun is out and aimed at Tony, who looks honestly surprised.
But not worried.
Steve doesn’t dwell on it, and his finger curls on the trigger. “You’re all going to let me go, okay?”
Ms Marvel makes a scoffing noise. “Rogers, is it? It’s only going to knock out the suit for a fun minute and you’ll be unconscious before that happens. So just give it up.”
Tony frowns at her. “Excuse me; being trapped in a non-responsive suit is not fun.”
She ignores him, and keeps a steady gaze on Steve.
Steve’s jaw tightens, and then his other hand pulls out a tiny pistol he had been saving for emergencies. “Let’s see what happens when photons, electricity, and a certain arc reactor mix, shall we?”
Ms Marvel’s eyes narrow. “You just helped defeat your boss – why are you doing this?”
“Self preservation.” Steve says coldly. “Let me go, or we’re going to start the experiment.”
“Oh, really?” Steve freezes as he feels the cold tip of a gun’s barrel pressed against his head and Black Widow’s sweet breath on his neck.
He grits his teeth, a split-second’s decision, and drops the two guns onto the floor. “I thought Avengers had a no-kill policy.”
“Depends on how we’re feeling on the day,” she replies smoothly.
The barrel lifts away from his head and he decides to take his chance. He spins around and has the gun on the floor before anyone can blink.
But then he sees the big green guy grinning down at him from behind Black Widow, and he decides to just let the SHIELD agents arrest him.
“You have a visitor, Rogers,” Hamilton sounds irritated, and Steve can imagine why. “Here you go, Stark.”
Steve doesn’t look up – he can tell its Tony by the sound of Italian leather squeaking on the floor with each footstep. He picks at a cut on his hand, sitting on the edge of his bed. He doesn’t get a cell mate this time – thank God for small miracles.
“Hey, Blondie.” Steve looks up instinctively, and then wishes he hadn’t.
Tony leans against the bars, looking away from him. Steve doesn’t bother going for his exposed throat, even though he sort of wants to for some inane reason – some things just aren’t challenging enough.
“You know, I used to have this massive problem with alcohol.” Tony says abruptly. “And daddy issues as well, as I’m sure you figured out.”
“Your fifty minutes are up, I’m afraid,” Steve replies.
“Right.” Steve sort of thinks Tony is smirking, but he can’t be sure. “All I’m saying is that it’s not too late. You know, to change.”
Then Steve decides that, you know what, it doesn’t matter how productive it would be, he’s going to wring Stark’s neck until it pops off like champagne cork. But just as he lunges, Stark pushes away and salutes him as he walks away.
“I read your file,” he calls back, sauntering further and further from Steve’s grasp. “Shame you’re not fighting on our side anymore, soldier.”
Steve punches the wall; reinforced concrete with a Kevlar coating and still it crumples underneath his fist. He looks back and his gaze catches on a small black package thrown carelessly onto his cell floor – since he knows it was there ten minutes ago, it’s not difficult to figure out who threw it.
He picks it up and undoes the string holding it together. Out onto his palm falls a small jewel that glows a thousand different colours in the light.
Steve gulps, makes a quick decision, and stuffs it into his pillowcase.
Whatever God Steve was praying to before, he is cursing by the afternoon.
In the canteen, there’s a small television propped up in the corner, continually showing news channels.
When Steve walks in for his evening meal – flanked by two nervous-looking guards – a news reporter is informing the room of how the Avengers heroically stopped an attack by the evil Baron Zemo and Steve Rogers.
And then Steve suddenly feels sick when the reporter starts telling the whole country about how Steve used to be a hero – how in the Second World War, he saved Americans and helped to defeat the Nazis.
Steve immediately turns and punches one of the guards in the stomach. He could’ve punched straight through his torso if he wanted to, but he’ll only leave bruising. However, the goal is achieved – he’s electrocuted and taken to solitary confinement.
In solitary confinement, they don’t have televisions or news reporters or painful reminders.
After a few days by himself, the warden decides he’s lucky enough to go back to the canteen for breakfast, and this time Steve is flanked by three guards.
Steve grits his teeth against the stare of the other inmates, and walks with his tray to the nearest empty table. A few moments into his dessert, three other trays clatter onto the table He chews slowly and waits.
“We heard Stark came to see you.” One voice says. Steve looks around, but most of the guards are either gambling on another table or on the other side of the room.
“What do you want?” He growls. He looks up and vaguely recognises the middle one as the kid who got his ass handed to him by Doctor Strange a few years ago. Except he’s not a kid anymore, with tired wild eyes and a scruffy beard.
Steve doesn’t recognise the other two, and assumes they’re the usual henchmen that every little but ambitious squirt needs.
The middle one speaks again: “We hear that Stark’s not the only one who wants to see you.”
Steve keeps his face calm. “I’m always available for visitors.”
The conversation in the canteen is why Steve isn’t surprised at all when five masked individuals wearing dark green uniform come into his room that night and put a drug-covered sack over his head.
He stays limp, even though of course the drug doesn’t work - didn’t they do their research? – and lets himself be dragged out of the prison and back onto Zemo’s submarine.
The sack is pulled out of his vision and he finds himself in Zemo’s office. It’s not really an office – more a metal chamber designed for storage, but with a huge oak desk in the middle and a lion’s skin for a rug in the middle of the room. Zemo steps around the desk and stands solemnly as Steve is pushed to a kneeling position.
“Zemo.” Steve bows his head, and tenses his arms in preparation to break the handcuffs holding his hands behind his back.
“Oh, Rogers,” he sounds resigned and regretful. Steve holds his breath. “I am so sorry.”
Steve looks up.
“I should not have left you to those foul Avengers,” Zemo’s tone turns furious. “But I was chased by that disgusting Thor who thought he could simply use brute force against me.”
Steve senses an opportunity and he takes it desperately. “No, I am sorry, sir.”
“You have nothing to be sorry for,” Zemo waves the matter aside. “Now, I believe you have the Zemo-Zooka’s only enemy?”
Steve frowns in confusion. Then he realises that Zemo is talking about the weird jewel. And then he realises that of course Zemo would check the jewellers and would find it missing and would therefore assume Steve had it.
Time to choose sides, Rogers, he tells himself.
“I don’t have it,” he lies. Fortunately, he had the initiative to grab the stone just an hour or so before he was broken out of prison. Currently, it’s stuffed into a hidden pocket on the inside of his trousers. “Iron Man took it off me.”
Zemo slams his fist against the desk in a whirl of rage. “Damn him!” Breathing heavily, he turns back to Steve. “We’ll need to lay low for the next month – I don’t want to risk him using it against the Zemo-Zooka.”
“But how does it work, sir?” Steve tentatively asks. “How could that tiny jewel work against such an impressive weapon?”
Okay, he’s laying it on a bit thick. But judging by Zemo’s preening, he doesn’t seem to mind.
"I don't know exactly," Zemo admits. "But when the two come into contact, it doesn't end well."
"Doesn't end well? Sir?"
"Explosive consequences." Zemo clarifies.
Suddenly Steve isn't so sure about his plan.