Steve roused to the first strike of the morning bell, and sat in the dark silence until the other twenty rows of pest-ridden cots began to creak and shift. Even in the low lighting, he could see the slow plumes rising from his neighbors’ beds with each breath.
The ice on the window, an inch thick in some places, chipped away beneath his thumbnail until he had filed away a hole large enough to see out. The yards were still dark as pitch, but as the bell grew tired and died away, he could make out the faint sound of the warder barking orders. A shadowed group of men in black coats came stomping through the snow toward the barracks.
It wouldn’t be remarkable, except for the rifles they carried over their shoulders, and the staunch postures that suggested a greater purpose than rousing the orderlies to empty the latrines. They were coming for him today—which meant the plan hadn’t fallen apart. Yet.
Steve threw aside his blanket, quickly putting on the worn black jacket and coat, each emblazoned with fading white patches with the number S-501, and made his way toward the shoe pile as he would any morning. He mostly stayed silent. The room was a quiet buzz of tension. They had all heard the trains arriving late last night, and the guards would be announcing this morning whether they were here to drop off or pick up.
Two days after his interment, the prisoner Stepan Rogov would be transferred from the Kotlas transit camp to his permanent, higher security work camp in Izhma. Less than two weeks after that, he and a second, unremarkable prisoner would attempt an escape, only to perish in the Russian wilderness.
Steve had always been able to tell, when there was a mission waiting in the wings for him. Part of this was the fact that he was part of a small group of special forces in very high demand and, in this day and age, there was always a mission. But another part was the not-so-subtle change in behavior of his commanding officers.
For one thing, no one ever called him in for early morning training the week before a dangerous mission. He wasn’t sure if this was because they wanted him to get his rest, or if it was out of respect, just in case he didn’t come back. Considering they only ever did it before the extremely dangerous missions, Steve strongly suspected the latter.
It was no surprise when Fury called him in to the briefing room that morning, and Steve wasted no time in getting down to business.
“You have a mission for me, Sir?” he asked. Fury stood beside the conference table, and Steve stepped up beside him, settling into parade rest.
“I do,” he said. Fury slid two of the files on the table forward. Steve flipped them both open. He recognized the man in the photo immediately as Howard Stark, someone he’d spent quite a bit of time on reconnaissance with during the war. His wasn’t a face Steve ever expected to see again.
“Howard Stark is dead,” Steve said slowly. Fury knew this, of course, and Steve was curious as to why he would bring it up. “Plane crash. I thought it was an accident.”
“It was, as far as we know,” Fury agreed, “but this mission doesn’t have to do with Howard. What we’re interested in is her.” He tapped the file, Maria Stark. Steve blinked in surprise at the last name and the marriage certificate that accompanied it. He had known Howard for years, and never once had he mentioned or indicated that he had a wife. Steve scanned the contents of the file. There were photos of Howard and Maria, separate and together, though the most recent was still over a decade old. Fury cleared his throat to regain his attention and said, “Or more specifically, her son.”
Steve’s eyes snapped up, and he saw that Fury was extending another file. He accepted it and flipped it open. The face staring back at him was young—hardly a teenager. Looking at the date of birth, he could see that the photo was simply outdated—again by several years—which, for SHIELD, meant that the man was very, very hard to find.
“Maria Stark returned to her country of birth before the war, and her son went with her,” Fury explained.
“And Howard stayed?” Steve knew the answer, considering that he’d worked with him personally and seen him on American soil. He couldn’t imagine ever being able to allow his wife and son to leave the country without him, but somehow, with Howard, it wasn’t a difficult picture for Steve to paint.
“We’re lucky he did,” Fury said. “Maria and Anthony Stark were living in the Czechoslovakia when we lost all contact.”
“And now you’ve found them?” Steve prompted. He was beginning to see where this was going. Maria was beautiful—he could see why Howard might have been drawn to her. As for Anthony… He bore a strong resemblance to his father, but that wasn’t what drew Steve's eye. He had the handsome and assured demeanor one would expect from Howard’s son, but also… to be willing to leave a life in America behind to watch after his mother was no small deed. He could see hard-set determination in him, even in a person so young.
“So to speak,” Fury said. “Last week we received intelligence saying that Maria Stark passed away not long ago. Her son was sent to an internment camp some time before, due to unknown circumstances.”
“That’s…specific,” Steve said. Nick shrugged, clearly just as irritated by their lack of intelligence. “And we’re going to go get him?”
“Not us. You. We can’t risk a nuclear war. Not for one man. But Tony Stark is a genius. Maybe more so than his father. The good kind, if he’s working for us. As long as he’s in Soviet hands…” Fury let the statement hang, but Steve understood the implications anyway. Especially now, in this Cold War. Howard Stark had given them the atomic bomb. If what Fury said was true, and his son was even smarter than him, Steve could only imagine what the man was capable of.
“Is he working for them now?”
“As a day laborer, according to our intelligence. They don’t know who they have, and we’re going to make damn sure they never learn.” Fury handed him a manila envelope. Steve slid his finger beneath the seal and it opened cleanly. “We’re sending you in—you’ll have ten days from the day you infiltrate. That’s your window. All the details are inside that folder. Good luck, soldier.”
“Thank you, sir,” Steve said.
“And Rogers?” Fury paused, fixing him with a stare that sent a chill through him. “Whatever happens, Tony Stark is not to fall back with the Soviets. Even if they don’t know who he is, it’s a liability I don’t like having. So you get him out of there. At any and all cost, get him out of Soviet control. Lives are at stake.” Steve hesitated. He knew what the man was implying. When it came to operations like this, SHIELD was willing to make sacrifices for the greater good. Still, Steve needed to be sure.
“Understood?” Fury demanded. The expression he wore eliminated any doubt from his mind. Steve’s gaze hardened. He didn’t agree with the method, but he was a solider, and he’d been given his orders. When the time came, he’d make a call. Steve nodded.
“Yes, Sir. I understand.” Steve thumbed through the file needlessly, more to hide how intently he was staring at the photo than anything else, and ignored his uneasiness at being sent off to a Soviet gulag. He had a vague idea of the kind of conditions they would have. He knew no one in their right mind would go willingly without at least some trepidation, and that certainly didn’t make him feel any better. Steve glanced back through the file one more time. Idly, he wondered what Stark had done to get himself arrested.
He didn’t suppose it mattered, in the end. He had his orders.
“Dismissed,” Fury said. Fury stood, gathering himself to head back to his office, and Steve was out the door in an instant. He knew that he shouldn’t have been surprised to find Bucky waiting for him outside, but it still made him jump when what he’d thought was just another fixture on the wall moved to follow him down the hall.
“New orders?” Bucky asked. He had a breezy, casual way about life, which is probably why Steve very nearly let him pull the file from his grip for a peek. But Steve had known Bucky for years, and he knew enough of his tricks to catch him in the last moment and pull the file out of reach.
“You know I can’t let you read this,” Steve said. He knocked Bucky’s arm out of the air. Buck gave him a crooked grin, but didn’t try again. “I don’t know why you try.”
“Gotta keep you on your toes,” Bucky quipped. Even though there was nothing to suggest it, Steve knew he was worried, if only because Steve would have been, had their positions been reversed. “You leaving soon?” he asked. When Steve was hesitant to answer, he added, “It’s not like I won’t notice once you’re gone.”
It was a good point.
“Tomorrow,” Steve said.
“We should go get a drink then,” Bucky said. He nudged Steve's side. “I bet no one will notice. What do you say?” To be honest, all Steve wanted to do was make an early night, but admitting that was a sure way to get Bucky to drag his ass all over base and the city.
“Can’t drink before an assignment,” he said instead, because that was a reasonable excuse.
“For company, then,” Bucky lowered his voice invitingly, and with a vague gesture, added, “or you and I could—”
“We can’t!” Steve interrupted a little too quickly. Bucky instantly adopted a sly look, that was just borderline lewd.
“That didn’t stop yo—mff,” Steve slapped a hand over Bucky’s mouth, crowding him into the wall. Bucky, of course, just made a face, wiggling his eyebrows for emphasis, and Steve rolled his eyes.
“I thought you had a girl?” Steve asked. Bucky licked his hand, and Steve pulled his back with a grimace, making a show of wiping it on Bucky’s jacket and then, because it probably wasn’t helping either of them, put a little distance between them.
“It’s non-exclusive,” Bucky shrugged. “Besides, she’s on assignment. Don’t know when she’ll be back.” He tried to make it sound casual, but Steve could hear the concern in his voice all the same. Steve had never met her and had only found out about her recently, but in the time Bucky had known her, he’d been visibly happier. That was all Steve really needed to know.
“Well,” Steve said, “I’d like to say the offer is tempting, but…” He made a show of looking Bucky up and down, completely unimpressed.
“Wow, you’re a piece of shit, Rogers!” Bucky said. Steve ducked out of the way when he came at him. He sidestepped, putting himself behind Bucky, and gave him a shove.
“Go home, Bucky. I’ll be fine,” Steve said as Bucky stumbled. Bucky turned back to him. With a smile that said that he was convinced that was true, if only because he wanted it to be, he threw both hands up in a placating gesture.
“S-501.” Steve answered the call with silent attention, and tucked the corner of his gloves into his sleeve. The warder, a tall, beady eyed man with a dark stare and darker disposition, wasted no time with formalities. “Come.” He proceeded to list another set of numbers as well. Everyone in the room kept their heads down, praying silently they would not be called for transport.
The work here was light, and the ill were treated better than most camps. This is where workers came to live. Other camps were not so optimistic. Each person stared after him and the others called, silently thankful they weren’t on the list; and silently praying for those who were.
Steve ignored them all, standing back ramrod straight against the wall until after the last number had been called and the final man had filed in beside him. The guards didn’t need to urge him to follow, though they did regardless with no small amount of joy for their jobs.
The outside air was a cold slap to the face, burning his lungs with each breath. They were led through the freshly fallen snow, past where the early workers had already begun to clear the drifts and ice in exchange for an extra meal and an hour of rest.
The only sound from the group was the quiet crunch of snow beneath their boots, and the irregular huff of air from those older or more tired workers who, unlike Steve, were not in peak physical condition and didn’t appreciate the exercise. When they reached the rail yard they were split off into groups, directed to different trains and different cars by number. Most of the men seemed to be going about business as usual, but occasionally Steve would catch sight of a face in the crowd that looked stricken with fear, as though the transfer would be the end of him.
Steve was lead to the back-most car and made to wait in line as the guards cleared them for transport. He tried not to glance between the guards, wondering which, if any of those present, were US spies. Someone with authority had to be, since there was no way Fury could guarantee his plan to succeed without it.
From here, Steve could just see the sharp, steel spikes beneath the car. Harmless at rest, but any prisoner trying to escape through the bottom during transit would be shredded. The machine-gunner who was idly smoking on the roof of the car served the same purpose for those trying to escape out the top.
One of the warders finally stepped forward, undoing the lock on the metal door and yanking it open. The warder didn’t so much as flinch when a moment later one of the men by the door fell from the car with a solid thump. Steve stared, wondering why he hadn’t even attempted to catch himself, when a second body joined the first.
A mixture of horror and disgust washed over him, and he averted his gaze. A third thud alerted him of another body, frozen to death or starved sometime during transit and thrown carelessly out to make room. No matter how many years he’d been in the military, or how many camps he’d liberated during the war, he would never be used to the sight of a corpse, and he hoped he never would be.
As a pair of orderlies stepped up to drag the men away, the warder started reciting prisoner’s numbers. He supervised as they loaded into the car one by one.
The car had already been packed full with people, and none of the other prisoners seemed interested in moving aside to give him space to stand. Steve bit back his irritation and climbed inside as best he could, forcing himself into the tight and suffocating space as the car door slammed shut behind him. Even the metal car was warm with this many people inside, so long as he wasn’t next to the door where the wind whistled through the cracks. Steve found that he didn’t mind the close quarters if it meant the cars would be warmer—a dull, numbing cold rather than the sharp, burning sting that warned of frost bite he couldn’t prevent. Steve had always hated the cold, and the ride to Kotlas had been far less comfortable, even if there had been more space to stand.
With the door closed there was a little more space to move, and he leaned himself against the wall, blinking in the low-light while his eyes adjusted. Only one other person from his barrack had joined him in this car. He was Yugoslavian, from what Steve had gathered, and he never spoke—Steve wasn’t sure if this was because he didn’t speak the language or because he simply had nothing of importance to say.
The same wasn’t true for the rest of the inhabitants of the car. Many were swapping stories or asking after old friends and relatives from other camps. Remarkably, the vast majority seemed content with their incarceration, and Steve couldn’t help but wonder how many of the actually deserved to be here.
He shook the thought away. He couldn’t help them all. Not without compromising his own mission.
A man beside him jostled him, pushing Steve away from the wall, and he almost pushed back. But then he caught sight of the tired, frail looking man, and he decided against it. While the rest of the people around him glared and cursed, Steve simply stepped aside as best he could.
“Damn it all,” the old man said. His back hit the door with a solid thump, and he let himself slide down until he was seated on the floor with his legs stretched through the gaps in between the legs of the men standing in front of him. The rest of the crowd around him took advantage of the extra space, but if he was made claustrophobic by the crowd looming over him, he gave no indication. “Izhma is not a place I ever wanted to be again.”
“You’ve been there before?” Steve stepped closer so that he could hear and be heard over the din in the car.
“Sure.” He coughed violently, just as the car listed to the left as they went around a turn. By the time everyone had settled, he had recovered, “Got moved six months ago. And now they send me back, after I’ve already washed my hands of the place.”
“Do you know a man named Stark? He would have been there at the time,” Steve prompted. He pursed his lips in consideration, but shook his head.
“Never heard of ‘im. Not a very big camp, either. You’re sure he’s there?” he asked. Steve paused, but decided it was best to not draw attention to himself by pressing the issue.
“No,” he said simply. The old man seemed uninterested in his answer anyway, having already dropped his head back and closed his eyes, and Steve wasn’t sure that any of the others had been listening from the start, so he left it at that.
Steve put a hand out to the wall to steady himself as the car went around another turn. He wasn’t completely worried—their intelligence had said that Tony had been in the camp in Izhma for nearly a year, and for lack of something better to go on, he would believe it. Still, much could happen in the time between when intelligence was sent and when it was received, and it wasn’t unheard of for an organization, even one as competent as SHIELD, to obtain false intelligence.
He wasn’t sure how long he’d been standing when the train came to a jerky stop. He only knew that there was no way they had arrived at Izhma so early. The old man seemed to agree, and started grumbling about delays, as though he had anywhere else to be. He leaned forward and inch, just enough to let the doors be thrown open behind him, and swung around to face the orderly who’d opened it.
“What’s the hold-up?” he grouched. The orderly ignored him.
“Everyone out!” For a long moment, no one moved. None of them wanted to go stand in the cold when they knew they would just be piling back into the cars again rather than going inside the buildings to warm up. Finally, the old man hopped down.
“What’sa matter, boys? Afraid of a little fresh-fallen snow?” He tromped off into the drift. The rest flowed after, like a damn broken, and soon the snow was packed tightly around the car, tramped down beneath their boots.
“Line up by fi-i-ves,” the guard shouted. He waved them over away from the cars. So they were stopping to do a count, and then possibly pick up or drop off prisoners for transfer. The prisoners were slow to obey orders, legs stiff from lack of use and, even more devastating, the cold.
While the warders went through and counted the men by fives, an orderly was standing reading from the list of numbers for those that would be continuing on to Izhma. They were written onto a piece of plywood, which lasted much longer in the weather than paper and could be wiped clean for reuse. Little whips of snow peeled away from the ground, stinging their faces with every gust of icy wind.
The warders, being the worst counters Steve had ever known, came up one man short and began their count again. The men around him shifted on their feet, grumbling about the cold. They were anxious to get inside, though it would not be much better. Steve didn’t care for any of this, and listened only for the list. They were coming up on his number.
“…471, 480, 483, 499, 504 …”
The warder had finished counting, and motioned for them to move, but didn’t come any closer. The guards on duty weren’t supposed to approach prisoners with their guns in hand. It made everyone jumpy, and every once and a while, they would get someone stupid enough to make a go for it. For a moment, Steve couldn’t believe what had happened. That couldn’t be right. He should have been on that list.
Steve tried to make his way to the car anyway, ignoring the guard shouting for him. One of the guards pulled away from the rest, shouting obscenities and demanding he got back in line. When he raised his rifle, Steve hesitated. The orderly with the list was already ushering the last of them into the cars, impatient to get out of the cold himself.
A flurry of movement five rows back drew the guards’ attention. Steve barely had enough time to realize that one of the inmates was making a run for it—barely long enough for the man in question to grab two handfuls of the chain-linked fence—before two shots rang out, and the body lurched forward and to the side. Steve tore his eyes away, breaking off toward the car in the distraction. He stepped up to the men checking numbers calmly, like he belonged there.
The orderly with the list grabbed his shoulder, pulling the patch into clear view. His eyes flicked down to the board in his hands, and for a moment Steve couldn’t breathe. If he wasn’t on that list, everything was over before it had begun. Then the orderly released his jacket, nodded, and urged him forward. Relief hit him like a wave, and Steve climbed into the car without a word.
Once inside, Steve followed the gaze of the rest of the prisoners to a woman standing in the snow, rifle still half-raised to shoot. She had such a dark look of irritation of her face that Steve almost wanted to look away.
“Who is that?” Steve asked, although he had an idea already. There was a lot of talk of the specialists that were trained specifically to recapture escaped prisoners 'for the safety of the nation'. They were deadly, and paid specifically to keep political prisoners and prisoners of war from threatening whatever skewed sense of national security had landed them in the gulags in the first place.
Of those specially trained individuals, Steve had only heard fearful rumors of one of them, the fiery haired woman who never failed to capture, and kill, her targets. The Black Widow, they called her, because if she caught her target, it was certain death.
“Romanova,” someone said, equal parts awed and disgusted, “Thank god I’m transferring. Wouldn’t want to end up like him.” Steve had only a moment to turn back, to see the man still clutching the fence in cold hands, before the warder slammed the car door slammed shut.
“What a fool,” someone mumbled behind him.
Steve couldn’t help but agree.
They arrived at Izhma in the dead of night, and even though the guards would likely take another couple of hours to get all the inmates assigned to barracks, not a single one of them thought that they wouldn’t have work as usual tomorrow. It would be a very long day, but nothing they hadn’t been through before.
An orderly pulled the door to the car open and quickly stepped aside to let them out. He instantly went to stand by the cluster of guards and wardens, all looking as unenthusiastic about being in the cold as the prisoners were.
Steve recognized one of the men—a warden, Grigori—from the files Fury had given him to memorize before he shipped out. He was scowling at the lot of them as they filed out of the car. While he made no effort to help assist the orderlies in frisking the men as they stepped out, he certainly made sure to retrieve anything of value that the orderlies found.
Steve removed his gloves, holding them open in one hand, and opened his jacket with the other. He had nothing to hide that they could find in a simple frisk. The orderly was young and obviously untrained. He gave a cursory search without even bothering to check inside the gloves and missing one pocket entirely before he waved Steve on.
“Line up by fi-ii-ves,” Grigori shouted. The prisoners didn’t need to be told. All they wanted was to get inside and go to bed.
By some grace of God the guards didn’t miscount, and found exactly the number of prisoners they’d been expecting. The guards split them into blocks of five by five, assigning them off to their appropriate barracks, and as soon as the gates clanged shut behind them the blocks burst into a frenzied rush to get inside, swarming into the darkness of the yard like ants.
There was no light in the barracks—it was well past lights out—but it was warmer than outside and sheltered from the wind. Steve couldn’t help but glance at some of the nearer sleeping faces in the darkness. It wasn’t as though he’d expected to see Stark in one of the bunks beside his own, but he couldn’t help the little feeling of disappointment when all he saw were worn and tired strangers.
A few men were squinting suspiciously at the newcomers in the darkness and others still were mumbling curses at being woken. Steve grabbed the farthest empty bed from the door, taking the excuse to scan faces on the way. No one familiar caught his eye, and the orderlies were stamping impatiently by the door waiting for the lasts of them to choose a bed, so just this once Steve took off his boots without putting them by the heater—knowing he’d regret the decision in the morning but also knowing that it would be better than angering the orderlies less than an hour after arriving—and climbed into a bunk.
The bed was—relatively—warm and comfortable after a full day of transit, and his whole body ached from staying in the same stiff position for hours on end, so it wasn’t all that surprising that only a few moments after putting his head to the pillow, Steve was asleep.
Steve woke the next morning to the sounds of men preparing for the workday. Plenty of men were still asleep, mostly new arrivals like himself, and it took Steve longer than he wanted to admit to realize that he’d slept straight through the morning bell.
His mind was still foggy with sleep, but he was awake enough to put on his freezing, stiff boots—and hell, he really should have put them by the heater after all—and roll out of bed to go stand by the stove while the gang boss and his assistants mulled about making plans for the day. There were a lot more empty beds than there had been the night before. The boss must have sent someone to bring their food back rather than driving the whole gang down to the kitchens. Usually, it was a nice gesture for new arrivals. They didn’t have to get up as early, and the work day would be a little easier on them, but Steve only found himself cursing the decision, or at least his failure to wake up and offer to go with them. The kitchens would have been his best chance at locating Stark, or at least hearing of him, if he wasn’t in Steve’s gang.
Which, from the sea of unfamiliar faces around him, Steve was nearly certain he wasn’t so lucky.
“You’re new?” Steve turned to the voice, nodding affirmation. The man looked him up and down as though sizing him up.
“Name?” The man demanded. Steve told him.
“Boss wants to talk to you.” He hitched a thumb toward the small semi-circle of men, some of whom Steve recognized from the train, others just as unfamiliar as the rest, gathered around who Steve could only assume was the gang boss. Steve nodded, stepping reluctantly away from the heater, and the messenger slipped into his place the moment he did.
The boss eyed him when he stepped up, but waited for a few more stragglers to join them before he muttered, in an accent that was distinctly non-Russian (German, maybe, or possibly Polish) so thick that Steve had to concentrate to understand him, “I am Bogdan. You can call me Boss… you have questions, ask them, not me.” He indicated two men, chattering together near the doorway. Steve assumed they were the assistant bosses, but didn’t have time to ask as the man continued, “Talk to them, they'll assign you jobs.”
The missing men chose that moment to return, laden down with bowls of mush for the morning meal, and Bogdan fixed them with an intimidating stare and said, “Jobs first.” He nodded toward the assistant bosses. When Steve glanced over again they were heading their way, obviously not worried about not getting their meals—the boss and assistant bosses were always fed, sometimes even with double portions, and no one complained despite the fact that their seconds came out of someone else’s first.
It didn’t take more than a moment of them sizing him up before they put him in with the bricklayers to carry bricks and mortar. It wasn’t often they had a prisoner in Steve’s shape, but for once he was happy for it, breaking off from the group to get his mush and a ration of bread. He was starving, and the mush wasn’t much more than oats and water without any fat in it, but it was still slightly warm even after being carried through the cold from the kitchen. It was certainly better than nothing. He hadn’t eaten in—Jesus—nearly a day, since the guards didn’t much care whether they starved or not so long as a schedule was kept.
Steve already had his boots on and he rarely bothered to remove his jacket in the night, so when the orderlies came in warning them of roll call in ten, he ignored them, focusing on his breakfast. This gang wasn’t a very friendly bunch, and Steve was happy for it, since he couldn’t see himself staying here long if he wanted to find Stark by the end of the day. And he would locate him by the end of the day—if gang assignments last night was anything to go by, there were only five gangs in Izhma, and only so many places for Stark to be. There was no reason to make friends when he’d be transferring.
When the orderlies arrived again to retrieve them, no one moved, everyone wanting to be the last one out the door and into the cold. Eventually, a few men made their way outside. Steve joined some of the first, and then sat quietly through the muttering and less-subtle cursing while they waited for the stragglers.
“If you didn’t take so damn long we’d be there already,” someone shouted behind them. A few more men finally stepped into the cold, and they closed the barrack doors behind the stragglers. The guards watched, uninterested, as they cursed one another and fell into formation, already dreading the workday and doing what they could to distract themselves from it. The guards didn’t care—so long as they were ready and counted before the gates opened, they could waste all the time in the cold that they wanted.
A few orderlies were already counting, even though they’d just have to start over again when the rest of the gang finally made their way outside, and Steve fell into one of the lines of five toward the front. At least the first ones out were also the first ones inside, although it wasn’t much of a comfort with last night’s fresh-fallen snow piled nearly to his knees.
He scanned the yard for the other gangs, but the metalworkers always left earlier than the rest so that they could fire up the furnaces, at least in Kotlas, and Steve supposed that it would be the same here as well. If Steve’s assignment was any indication, they’d be more likely working on laying bricks. He could only hope they’d be laying foundation inside, rather than stacking walls out in the cold.
Someone’s sharp elbow hit his side, and Steve snapped back to realize that the gates were opening and they were moving forward. He rubbed absently at the aching point, not even bothering to curse him out, and followed after the rest to stay in formation.
The path outside the gates split in two directions, the only difference between them being the state of the snow. To the left, the path the guards were taking them, was well traveled (by the other gangs, no doubt) and the snow had already been packed down or cleared away. The right path was more pristine, with only a few lines of disturbed snow where the trucks had pushed through. Steve thought he could see the curl of smoke rising over the trees in that direction.
A town, then.
He recalled the maps Fury had presented him, mostly rough and hand drawn—and all unique, much to his annoyance—and recalled those that had placed the town of Izhma to the east and the factories to the west of camp. The factory they would be at for the workday was nearly a mile from camp. Steve spent every wind and landmark in the road updating his mental map and taking special note of the guard’s procedure during the trip. They all kept rifles at their sides, and although they weren’t letting their guard down completely, there were plenty of weak points in their security.
En route between locations was probably not the ideal moment to escape, but it couldn’t be ruled out entirely.
When the factory—and it could hardly be called that, being scarcely more than four walls with a large yard and barbed wire fence—came into view, Steve redirected his attention. He noted guard towers—encouragingly lacking—and numerous manned patrols—less encouraging but still workable.
The count while they waited to enter came up accurate, and they still redid the count. Steve figured this was procedure, since few of the veterans complained, and when the doors did open, they were quick to push and shove those in front to hurry inside the compound and toward the large, wooden factory doors.
Steve hesitated in the doorway, scanning for familiar faces. He must have hesitated too long, because someone snarled his number, giving a helpful shove in the direction he should be walking. The older members of the gang didn’t need to be told what to do, splitting off to start mixing the first small batch of mortar but leaving it in the mixer to keep it from freezing too quickly.
Even inside, Steve could see his breath. He found himself absently rubbing his gloved hands together. No one else seemed to be noticing the cold.
“One degree below, no more. Good weather for brick laying.”
“Be better if we could get it warmed up in here,” the assistant boss groused. He was standing over the gang boss, who was busy turning on the boiler. To no avail, judging by their expressions. “We don’t want the mortar freezing before we can use it. That’s a damn waste—hey!”
A group of three, obviously pleased with their find, were pinning stolen pieces of roofing felt over the windows. They glanced up like startled deer at the shout, feigning innocence.
“Where’d you get that?” the assistant boss demanded. They froze, glancing between each other, and one jerked a thumb in the direction of the generator room. The gang boss regarded them calmly. “S’there more?”
“Go check.” He turned an angry eye on the men crowing around the little corncob stove, snapping: “And the rest of you lugs get to work.”
No one moved—the workday hadn’t started yet, after all, and they wouldn’t budge from the stove for anything less than the morning bell. Steve could only hope the room warmed up soon once the boiler kicked in.
One of the workers was already returning with another roll of roofing felt, and Steve was almost completely sure that they weren’t supposed to be filching materials that weren’t for the work. Still, the assistant boss looked pleased and none of the guards were paying any attention to them, so he figured that if it meant they could be a little warmer while they worked, he wouldn’t comment.
“Fuck!” The gang boss cursed loudly and kicked the side of the boiler with a hardened toe. The metal buckled and made an ugly clang, but nothing else happened. It refused to start. “Piece of shit’s broken again,” the boss said, “One of you, go get Anton. Tell him I'll pay the usual if he can fix it.”
There was a round of dissatisfied mumbling—no one wanted to leave the warmth of the stove, or do anything at all before the work started. Someone mumbled send the new guy, and there was some agreement. Steve figured it would be better to volunteer before he was forced to go anyway, if only to prove that he was willing to work.
“Gang Three,” Boss said, pointing toward the group of metalworkers gathered in the far corner of the warehouse. “Get him and hurry back.” Steve nodded, jogging over to the group and trying to get his blood pumping. They were glaring when he came up to them, probably worried he would be telling them there was yet more work their gang had to do.
A worn looking man with black hair greying at the temples cut him a warning look as he approached and barked, “What?”
“Boiler’s broken,” Steve said. The group seemed to visibly relax when they realized Steve wasn’t coming with a job, and many of them turned disinterestedly away. “Are you Anton?”
“He’s up there,” the old man said. He spit onto the dirty concrete beside him and hitched a thumb toward the top of the scaffolding, where the riveters worked. Steve thought he could see the edge of a knee poking out from one of the scaffolds, but he wasn’t sure.
“What’s he doing up there?” Steve asked before he could think better of it. The work day hadn’t started yet, so there was no reason for it.
“What’s he ever doing anywhere?” he shouted back, hands thrown up in frustration, “Guy’s got a screw loose.”
Steve wasn’t sure what to say to that, so he just mumbled his thanks, making his way over to the ladder. The steps were frozen over, with little flakes of ice that made his gloves stick to the rungs as he climbed and the grip on his boots slip with every step.
Anton was staring at him expectantly when he pulled himself up, having probably heard him during his ascent. Steve stalled, recognition hitting him like the icy chill outside and he felt his grip slip slightly in his surprise. He was a well few years older, taller but no broader and much more world-weary, but there was no doubt.
“You’re Tony Stark,” Steve accused. The man started, schooling his surprised expression a moment too late. He realized his mistake a moment later, and didn’t even try to recover. Instead, he glanced over the edge to see if there was anyone else watching, and then leveled Steve with a guarded and very unfriendly look.
“Anton,” Tony snapped. His voice was hushed, barely a whisper. “What the hell are you trying to pull?” He cast another glance downward, as though someone below could have possibly heard.
“Who are you?” he hissed. He didn't bother to verify Steve’s statement. Steve climbed the rest of the way onto the platform and offered a hand, which Tony eyed but didn’t accept, and, in English, said,
“Steve Rogers. I’ve been looking for you.” A strange expression crossed Stark’s face, but as soon as it appeared, it was gone. He was painfully thin in a way that Steve would have blamed on the camps, had he not seen the pictures of Tony young and too thin for his own good. The man in front of him looked tired in a way he hadn’t been in the photos, eyeing him warily.
“Why’s that?” Tony said.
“I’m a Captain in the United States military, Mister Stark. I was sent to get you home,” Steve replied. Tony blinked at him, and barked out an incredulous laugh. Of all the reactions Steve might have expected—suspicion, relief, hell even anger—he had never considered that Tony Stark would actually laugh in his face.
“Well congratulations, Captain. Now you’re a prisoner, too. Well done.” He clapped a few times, and grabbed a few tattered pages by his hip with clumsy, gloved hands, creasing them with a second fold. “No, really, I’m impressed.” He tucked them into the torn lining of his jacket. “As far as rescue missions go, I think this takes the cake.”
“I know you’re skeptical, but you have to trust me. We have a plan, and it’s my job to get you back home, safe and sound—”
“I don’t have a home,” Tony said pointedly in Russian, “and if Howard thinks I’m going back to live with him, he’s sorely mistaken. I’d rather stay here.” Tony must have seen something in Steve’s expression, and damn him if he wasn’t intuitive. “What?” When Steve hesitated, he pressed. “Oh, don’t try to save my feelings, Rogers, tell me.”
“Howard died in a plane crash last year,” Steve said. Tony’s expression remained carefully neutral, and he stayed silent. Steve had almost been expecting him to say good riddance. “Tony, I’m trying to help,” Steve tried.
“Yeah?” he snapped, “What do you want, a medal? And where the fuck were you guys a year ago? Or a few months? Where were you when my mother—” He clammed up just as quickly, anger giving way to resignation. Steve wasn’t surprised, not really, that Tony didn’t trust anyone but himself.
“We only just got intelligence on your location. As I understand it, we lost track of you after Maria-” Tony flinched and cut him a glare, and Steve trailed off.
“Really? And they tell you everything?” Tony said.
“No, but they told me enough.” Steve tried to project something akin to trustworthiness. He was fairly certain it was lost on Tony, but he had to try anyway. “Less than two weeks from now, there will be an empty cargo train three miles South of the Izhma river. It will take us into friendly territory.”
“Those tracks are abandoned, and even if they weren’t, how the hell would you plan on getting out to catch this train?” Tony said. He sounded less angry, more intrigued, but Steve was getting the impression that he had no intention of cooperating.
“We’ll find a way,” he said, “but I’ll need your help.”
“Well, you don’t have it. Even if you do manage to escape, how do you plan on finding the tracks? Or finding your way after that?” Tony demanded. Steve thought of the countless maps and aerial reconnaissance pictures he’d poured over from the mission file. Even now, he could paint each picture as clearly as though it were sitting beside him.
“I know the way,” he said. Stark scoffed.
“You know the map,” Tony corrected. Steve didn’t bother to confirm, “I won’t be the first to tell you that walking through a blizzard is a lot different than staring at a map from the comfort of your drawing room. Men who’ve walked a path a thousand times get lost in the snow every day—”
The whistle marking the start of the work day startled them both. Steve leaned over the railing to look as the men below grudgingly got up from their resting places by the stove to start in on their work again. He wanted to continue the argument, make him see reason, but it would be no good if anyone grew suspicious, or tried to interrupt and overheard sensitive information. Steve sent Tony one last dissatisfied look, which Tony met with an equally stubborn glare, and said,
“The boiler’s broken. Boss says he’ll pay the usual to have it fixed.” Tony eyed him, nodding only slightly,
“Fine, I’ll fix it," he paused and then added, “and no more English, you’ll get us both shot.” He shook his head, turning away to collect the tools he’d hidden beneath his seat. Steve wanted to say something more, but he was afraid to push his luck and end up on the man’s bad side. Instead, he took note of Tony’s number, 575, and then headed back to his gang.
When Tony showed up a few minutes later, wrench in hand, he looked pointedly in every direction other than at Steve. He tried not to take it personally, but he couldn’t help the disappointment when Tony carefully averted his gaze. Steve let him be, distracting himself by hauling mortar up to the scaffold where the rest of the gang was working on laying bricks.
Later, when the work day ended and the escorts were lining them up by fives, Steve found himself at the front of the crowd, eager to get back to camp. They held them in the yard while the metalworkers were waiting impatiently to be counted and released from the gates.
The courtyard was unnervingly still, with the empty yard, the biting cold, and the moon gleaming on the snow. The guards had already fallen in—three yards away from each other and marching with their guns at the ready. Within the columns of guards stood the black herd of prisoners, and in among them, in a black coat like everybody else, was that man, S-575, whose father had worked on the Manhattan project, who’d tested as a genius almost before he could talk. And now he was here, all gaunt and threadbare, doing odd jobs and drawing blueprints on stolen scraps.
There’s nothing they wouldn’t do to a man.
His mission brief had told him that Grigori was not the most powerful man in the Izhma camp, or even the highest ranking of the warders, but he had been assigned to Izhma the longest and seemed to believe that that warranted some amount of respect from the prisoners. What the files hadn’t told him, Steve had only needed to meet the man once to learn. He was a vain, greedy old man, who believed himself far above everyone else and the work they put him too.
Steve had pegged him instantly as a potential mark.
Grigori had a private workplace that stuck out as an awkward extension of the wooden shack the rest of the camp used as an office. The chimney was belching smoke and tar so thickly that it obscured the building behind them, and Steve knew that the warden was in.
The office was warm and welcoming around the acrid scent of smoke. There were a few orderlies, whose jobs were to stoke the stove and keep it hot, playing poker with dog-eared cards on a crate by the door. They glanced up to him, but lost interest just as quickly when they realized he was only another prisoner.
None of the other warders or prisoners with office work spared him a glance, and Steve allowed himself only a second to enjoy the warmth that pulled the ache from his bones before he slipped through into the back room.
When Steve stepped in, Grigori eyed him as though he were a disease. Grigori had the sort of greasy black hair that swept itself back all on its own, and a pair of huge, stark grey eyes. He went back to the papers on his desk, possibly deciding if he should ignore him altogether, before finally setting the clipboard aside and cutting him a glare.
“What?” He didn’t bother to hide his irritation, but frankly, Steve didn’t care. He wasted no time with small talk.
“I want to switch gangs. From Five to Three,” Steve said. The warder scoffed—Steve had expected as much—and turned back to his papers.
“Get out,” he spat, “we don’t pander to wants and wishes, here.”
“I’ll trade for it,” Steve said. That got the warder’s attention. He could see the man was still wary, looking at him as though he were absolute scum. He didn’t expect him to have anything worth a trade, but Steve could also tell that he was too greedy to not at least see what he had to offer.
The warder eyed him for a moment, before motioning for Steve to shut the door.
“What could you possibly have, that—” Steve silenced him by producing the gold tie pin from his pocket, issued to him for the specific purpose of a negotiation like this, and which he had kept hidden in the lining of his sock. From the warden’s expression, Steve wagered he was interested. “Where’d you get that?” he asked.
“Belonged to a friend,” Steve lied. “And now it belongs to you.” The warden paused, and then extended his hand to accept the pin. He turned it over in his hand, saying nothing.
“On record, you moved for behavioral issues,” he said finally, “Collect your things, we’ll put them in holding.”
“In holding?” Steve asked. The warden sent him an oily smirk that made Steve want to crawl out of his skin.
“Well, you’ve been misbehaving.” He ran a hand over his chin thoughtfully. “That’ll get you a transfer, after you spend a night in the Can.” Steve bit back his irritation—he could see from the warder’s self-satisfied smirk that there would be no deal if he argued. Some men just wanted to be in control. Instead, he nodded, not trusting himself to do anything more, and turned to leave the room.
The two orderlies were shooting him curious glances when he emerged, poorly hidden behind their cards. He brushed past them and out into the cold before he could hesitate. He steeled himself against the wind and cut across the yard in the same path through the snow he’d taken coming out.
One night in the Can wasn’t really a punishment, anyway. The Can was a solitary confinement cell used to punish the prisoners, but it wouldn’t be any different from the barracks if it weren’t for the fact that there was no heater. He’d certainly seen worse, and it would only be a problem if they kept him in for more than a day. It was when he started missing hot meals that the punishment actually started.
No one paid Steve any mind when he returned to the barracks and started piling his things onto his bed. He really didn’t have much—just a jacket, gloves and a hat, an extra pair of boots and a blanket to wrap it all up in. On second thought, Steve decided to put the jacket on, just in case they didn’t confiscate it, so that he would be a little warmer tonight.
The Can in transient camp was all concrete and very cold. Even the bed and blanket couldn’t fight the chill. Steve suspected that this wouldn’t be much different. When two guards arrived, one to collect his things and the other to escort him, the other members of his gang paid a little more attention, but no one made an effort to fight on his behalf.
He didn’t blame them. They’d known him for only one day, after all, and each person was ultimately looking out for themselves. Steve handed over his bundle, and followed after the guard. He paid special attention to the layout of the camp, and the areas which he had yet to see. In a way, a night in the Can would be useful.
At least now, he had time alone to go over the layout of the camp and formulate a plan.
Steve swiped a hand across the dirt floor when the sound of sharp footsteps reached him, erasing all evidence of the map he’d spent all morning constructing. He’d only seen it once, but after last night Steve was confidant he knew the layout by heart. Steve pushed himself up from the floor and onto the bed, just as the tumblers on the door clicked and light flooded into the cell.
“Come on, work as usual,” the guard said. He shoved the bundle of Steve’s belongings into his arms. Steve accepted them and the guard waved him toward the barracks. The man didn’t bother to make sure Steve followed, certain that escaping the cold would be incentive enough, and Steve hurried toward his quarters after him. He didn’t expect that Tony would be very happy to see him, but it had to be done.
Steve saw Tony the second he walked in to the barracks, with his back turned to the door. He’d taken one of the floor beds in the corner of the room, with the bed above his occupied by a wiry looking young man scarcely older than Steve was. He was leaning over the top of the bunk, speaking earnestly to Tony—or at him, perhaps, since the genius paid him no mind. The guard led Steve to the opposite end of the room, where he stopped in front of another bed, the top bunk of which was empty but obviously lived in, and addressed the bottom bunk’s inhabitant, an older man with a very crooked nose.
“You’re being transferred to Gang Five,” the guard told him. Steve had expected some irritation at the switch, but instead the older man looked relieved. The guard hung around for only a moment. As soon as he realized there wouldn’t be a fuss, he walked away, having decided that he had better things to do with his time.
“Thank God.” He leaned in closer to address Steve privately. “It better have been worth it, comrade. I hear this gang is up for the Community Development job.”
“Community Development?” Steve asked. The man nodded earnestly, already stuffing his belongings into a worn grey pillowcase.
“Off site, clearing snow and digging holes to put up posts and barbed wire,” he said. Steve had heard of that kind of work before, but he hadn’t been around long enough to see it. The barbed wire had to be put up before any other work was done, because the guards couldn’t risk the prisoners escaping. It was rotten work, mostly, because it was months of digging in the frozen ground with nowhere to get warm. Half the time the ground was so solid that your pickaxe just bounced off, and all you could do was keep swinging to try and keep warm.
“Rotten work, for rotten luck. But maybe you won’t get the assignment. Doesn’t much matter to me anymore. I guess I can thank you for that.” He shot Steve a sly grin, and hopped off the bed. As Steve watched him collect his boots, he felt a hand fall on his shoulder, spinning him around and shoving him back against the bed. Steve’s hand came up to grip the wrist, only managing to halt himself when he saw who had grabbed him.
“What the fuck are you doing here?” Tony hissed. He spoke perfect Russian, with no indication of an accent, and Steve wondered if it was his first language.
“Bad behavior,” Steve said. The hand on his shoulder tightened, and he amended, more quietly, “You know why.” Steve was fully aware of the stares they were receiving, so he didn’t say any more, dropping his hand. Tony seemed to have the same sense, and his grip loosened until he let go of Steve altogether. He looked frustrated but… surprisingly not angry. Maybe convincing Tony would be easier than he’d originally thought.
Before Steve had a chance to say more, Tony’s bunk-mate was forcing his way between them, demanding Tony’s attention, “Come on, Anton.” Steve saw Tony roll his eyes, and then he turned away with a sigh, without acknowledging him at all.
His companion made an irritated noise, before turning to Steve. “You know each other?” He seemed to know the answer anyway. Steve was surprised at his accent. German, definitely. He’d know it anywhere, which begged the question of how he’d ended up here. He supposed it wasn’t his business, anyway.
“Not before yesterday,” Steve said. He shook his head—wouldn’t want anyone to get the wrong idea, or start asking questions.
“Well, you’re lucky. Annoying Bastard, keeps me up all night with his scratching. S’bad enough he gets the bottom bunk so I have to climb up every night, God knows what he’s doing down there.” Steve glanced at him and, voice casual, said,
“I like the top bunk better, myself.” Steve could see the gears turning in his head at the opportunity, and had to school a smile when the man quickly added,
“Oh. Of course, he is not so bad,” he amended, “You hardly notice if you aren’t listening.”
“I’d trade,” Steve said. The offer of a bottom bunk and relief from constant pestering seemed to be more than enough incentive to switch, and he struck a firm handshake,
“Wunderbar.” He rubbed his hands together thoughtfully. “I’m Kurt, by the way.” Steve smiled, introducing himself, but Kurt was already running back to his bunk to collect his things.
Steve saw Tony shoot him a look, exasperation at first, which turned to confusion. His ex-bunkmate said something to him. The glare Tony sent his way could have killed, but Steve ignored it as threw his things onto the top bunk, returning a companionable smile.
He caught a flash of yellowing paper, crumpled and worn at the edges, before it was tucked fully beneath Tony’s bunk. It was the same stack of paper’s he’d been hiding in the lining of his jacket yesterday, and when Tony looked his way, he pretended he hadn’t seen.
Men were beginning to congregate at the doorway, at war with whether they wanted line up for breakfast or avoid facing the bitter morning air a little longer.
“Lord knows why you think I’m worth it,” Stark groused. He fixed him with a stony look before pulling his coat around him tightly. Steve snatched his coat and followed closely behind, nudging one of the men stumbling sleepily behind the group aside to slide up next to Tony. He huffed in annoyance, but anything else he might have said was lost in the wind.
The kitchen was a lot more hectic than Steve was used to at Kotlas, but the basic setup was the same. Bowls were counted out for each gang, the exact number of servings needed, plus extra for the assistants and bosses that warranted it, and the assistant bosses would distribute them. It was the same mush as always too, which meant the same moaning and groaning about said mush. Tony instantly broke for the tables, trying to get a place to sit before they all filled, but Steve hung back to stand by the grate that protected the cooks from the prisoners.
The assistant gang bosses crowded over toward the kitchen at the same time that the rest of the gang poured into the room, making a bee-line for the seats. The tables were crowded with people who had already finished eating, but were enjoying the comfort of a place to sit. Those that had to eat standing up were cursing and threatening, but the men at the tables ignored them. When a man spent most of the day, every day, for a ten or twenty year sentence on his feet working, there was very little that could pull him from a comfortable chair.
The cook slid two bowls through the tiny slot between the kitchen and the mess, but he didn’t shout out a number with them, momentarily distracted. Something crashed down in the kitchen behind him, and his hands drew away from the slot. Steve walked past the window, lifting one of the bowls as he went. Another man, short and angular in his movements, had a similar idea, and lifted the other bowl. He sent Steve a wink, disappearing into the crowd.
Steve was fairly certain that no one had seen, and when the cook resumed his count as though the two bowls hadn’t existed, he knew for sure. Steve grabbed his own portion from the assistant boss’s stack and made his way to the tables. He’d learned very quickly that an extra meal was a commodity not many could afford to pass up, and an even better bargaining tool.
He made it to the table at the same time as another, lanky man who seemed determined to grab the last open seat beside Tony. Steve sidestepped him, earning half an angry shout that died as soon as he realized that he wouldn’t win a fight against Steve if he started one. Tony got one look at him and scoffed, but he wasn’t angry enough to relinquish his seat, either.
“Fuck off, Stepan,” Tony said. He scraped idly at the bottom of his empty bowl, “I’m sure Hammer had something very important to discuss.” He cut the wiry man a glance, with an expression Steve probably would have afforded a stain on his shirt. Hammer didn’t seem to notice, and took the cue to start in on all the important things he’d had to say.
Rather than answer, Steve slid the extra bowl Tony’s way.
Tony looked surprised, but didn’t hesitate to accept the offer, and both he and Steve pointedly ignored the green eyes cast their way. Tony gave him a look that Steve couldn’t quite decipher—regret, maybe—and Tony stood to leave, “You won’t last long,” he said. It was spoken quietly enough that Steve wasn’t sure he’d been meant to hear it at all.
“I don’t have to,” Steve said. For a moment, he wasn’t certain if Tony had heard him or not, either, but then Tony leaned down next to his ear, so he could whisper, in English.
“They have a saying here, Rogers. You die today, I die tomorrow,” he said, “It’s every man for himself, and I’ll be damned if I let you come along and ruin things for me here.”
And then he was gone. Steve twisted around to watch him retreating through the crowd. When he turned back, the seat beside him had already filled.