The kind of thinking that made a super soldier, pissed him off, and then locked him in an unreinforced brig, was as far as Gabe could tell pretty typical of the whole outfit. It was certainly in line with the thinking that took a trilingual college graduate, made him a private, and then used him as dumb muscle. Then there was of course what happened after, but that was something else.
That they left the cell unguarded in the middle of the night watch was a bit much, even for the Army, but Gabe would take it. It took him ten minutes to wrench the door off the hinges. It made an awful screeching sound, and he tried to work both faster and quieter, but no one came. The outer door to the brig wasn't locked, so once he was out, he just booked. Somewhere down the line he was going to have to find a shirt and shoes, but now he just wanted to put as much distance as he could between himself and Doctor Reinstein. Shouldn't be too hard; if there was one thing this new body could do, it was run.
He didn't want to think about what would happen if they caught him, what was to have happened to him the next morning, if he hadn't bolted, and had already happened to two good men.
Hearing a sound ahead, he stopped, bare feet skidding on the linoleum. He waited for a moment, trying to slow his heart and listen. There it was again, footfalls, the sound of someone with soft-soled shoes trying to move quietly that he absolutely wouldn't have heard before they juiced him up.
Had an alarm gone when he opened the cell door? If so, why were Colonel Price's men creeping around? They must be trying to catch him alive. Like that would happen.
Gabe rounded the corner swinging and slammed the sneak against the wall, hands already on the lithe figure's throat. A figure dressed in black, whose breasts now pressed against Gabe's chest. Definitely not any of Price's goons, or he wouldn't have thought so, but he did know her.
"Damn it," he muttered. After all that had happened in the last few days, he didn't think he could have been disappointed by anything, but he'd liked the English woman that he'd met on the first day here. She'd had the kind of spark that had always got him in trouble, and he hadn't seen her once the bad stuff started happening, so he'd held out hope that she wasn't involved, that she didn't know. But had she'd been on it all along? He couldn't take the chance. He started to close his hand on her throat, thinking at least he'd choke her out and leave her tied up.
"Oh good," she said, words a little strangled, but not the least daunted. "We came to rescue you, but you seem to have got ahead of us. That will save time."
Gabe relaxed his hands. "What?"
"I have a car waiting outside, and the fire should keep the guards distracted for another twenty minutes, but we ought not to dawdle."
Maybe this was some kind of trap, but it seemed way too complicated for Price's operation, and maybe Gabe was at heart an optimist, even still.
He dropped his arms and stepped back. "Which way?"
English ran in front of him, and damn he liked a woman in trousers, even loose dark ones, that admittedly didn't show off a lot in the dim hallways. Gabe tore off after her, through the kitchens and out a side door. Once they were outside, he could hear distant shouts, but they were all off towards the flickering glow on the other side of the camp. It was the same side of the camp as most of the lab equipment. Gabe let himself feel a moment of bitter satisfaction about that.
He stopped when English put her hand on his chest, and they waited. His enhanced senses picked up every rustle and bird call in two miles, but soon also the rumble of a jeep, which swing in, lights extinguished, and pulled up in front of them. A scrawny white kid in khakis was driving, and he seemed familiar too, but Gabe didn't have time to place him before English was shoving him in the back and pushing his head down while she threw a blanket over it.
The Jeep roared out through the gates, barely stopping at the checkpoint, and onto the highway.
"Where to now?" Gabe asked. He pulled the blanket around his shoulders, trying to cut the night-time chill. He never had gotten a shirt and shoes.
"Now," the driver said, "we figure out what to do next."
The kid's name was Steve, it turned out, and English was called Peggy, but seemed to prefer to go by Carter. All of which Gabe learned while they were holed up in Philadelphia, in the kind of hotel that charged by the hour and allowed a white couple and a half naked black man to stop with no questions asked. They were all pointedly not sitting on the bed, which was filthy, and probably bug-ridden.
"So you didn't have any kind of plan?" Gabe asked again, having a distinct feeling of being out of the frying pan and into a fire, for all that they'd given him the lone chair.
"We had a plan to get you out," Steve said. He'd tried to give Gabe his coat, but it barely fit one arm. Still, it was about the nicest thing anyone had done for Gabe in weeks, and he found himself liking the kid despite himself. The kid, who was probably older than Gabe was, but looked far too young and naive to have just committed treason.
"We only found out what they were planning last night," Carter added, sounding a little defensive. She at least seemed to have an idea of how much trouble they were all in, and he hoped some of was because she knew she'd been too late for the others. "We felt, given the circumstances, we could allow a few details to slide. What were you planning to do?"
"Right," Gabe said. He hadn't been planning anything past running as far as he could get before they got their knives into him. "Shit." He glanced at Carter. "Sorry."
Carter waved him off.
"I don't think you'd fit in my apartment," Steve said, sounding so sincere that Gabe thought he was serious until he saw the little smile tugging at his mouth. "They're probably looking for me by now anyway."
That would be nothing on how much they were looking for Gabe. There was no way he could go home, or to anyone he knew, or to the State of Georgia. God, he wondered what they'd told Theo Christian and Eddie Grant's families. "Training accident," most likely. He should have busted out sooner. They all should have gone together.
"I need to get in touch with my contacts," Carter said enigmatically, "I'll take the car and call from the other side of town, so they can't track it back here." She paused on the way out the door, her eyes meeting Steve's with an intensity that Gabe had only seen at the pictures. Gabe felt a blush spreading up his neck. Steve's ears turned pink.
Then Carter reached across and put her hand on Gabe's shoulder, touching bare skin and infusing his body with warmth. He lifted his hand to cover hers, and she met his gaze with the same intensity, a pure and fiery focus. "If I'm not back in two hours," she said, "run and don't look back."
Then she was gone.
They both sat in silence, Gabe still on the lone chair, Steve crosslegged on the floor, his back against the wall. "Quite a girl," Gabe said at last.
"Yes she is," Steve agreed with feeling. Then he hesitated, he was looking at Gabe now, and he realised that Steve's eyes had previously more or less been following Peggy around the room. He reached across the space between them to rest a hand on Gabe's knee, and Gabe felt intensely aware of the sixty extra pounds of muscle he now wore: his own skin, but not. "I'm sorry," Steve said.
Gabe shrugged, uncomfortable. "Nothing on you."
"It was supposed to be me," Steve said. He pulled his hand back and crossed his arms awkwardly. And oh, Gabe was in trouble. He'd spent just as much trouble with sweet young idealist boys as he had with sparky women, especially when either had a spine of steel. "I volunteered," Steve continued. "I would have been in that machine, except something happened to the project. They took it away from Doctor Erskine. Then everyone was yelling, and no one was telling me anything."
Oh, Gabe thought. He looked at Steve again, wondering what he'd have looked like if they'd strapped him into that terrible machine. Could he have survived, and if he could have, would it have made a difference to any of them if they'd been there willingly? Would going in with full knowledge kept Christian and Grant alive? "But you found out where it'd gone."
"Agent Carter did," Steve said, and even with her title in there, Gabe could hear the adoration in Steve's voice. Again he wondered what was going on between them. "She tracked it down, then said she wanted to work on the new project. Managed to convince them that she'd transferred over. After that...."
After that, they'd heard that they'd run the experiment on Christain, Grant and Jones, and when only Gabe survived, that they were preparing to take him to bits in order to find out exactly how he ticked. And here they all were. "So why are you here?" he asked.
"What they did was wrong," Steve said, voice trembling with sincerity. "That's the kind of thing I joined up to fight."
"No shit," Gabe said, but felt his throat closing. Of course he'd known it was wrong, but hearing another man, a man with no stake in this, say it aloud brought him close to tears. He pulled the blanket more tightly around his shoulders. "The worst part is, if they'd asked me, I probably would have volunteered. What a sucker, huh?"
"I guess we both are."
"Maybe so," Gabe said, but his heart wasn't in it. He felt like he should be tired–he hadn't slept since that awful morning when they'd strapped him into the machine and pumped his body full of chemicals no one really understood–but his body kept ticking along, and he felt as alert and aware as he had when he'd stepped out of the thing.
They'd fallen into silence again, but now it felt companionable. Gabe didn't mind just sitting and clutching his blanket, looking at the scrawny young man across from him, watching him start to nod off, his head tipping back against the wall. Against all odds, he felt safe here. Maybe he was going into shock.
If he was, he figured he'd just about earned it.
Carter returned not only with new hope, but with a different vehicle and some clothes for Gabe. She said it was better no one asked where she got any of it, which made Steve frown. Gabe pulled on his shirt and jacket–both a little tight–kicked into his shoes and offered to drive.
"Where to?" he asked as he pulled on the main road, careful to keep under thirty-five miles per hour and avoid speed stops. It was good to get behind the wheel, for the illusion of control as much as the cover having a black driver gave them.
"Yonkers?" Carter said, voice lifting as though she couldn't quite believe that was an actual place.
"What's in Yonkers?" Steve asked, his voice incredulous for, presumably, a different reason.
"Hopefully a friend."
Gabe drove on.
Carter had acquired a Model B, which gave the two in the back more room to spread out, and by the time Gabe skirted Edison Steve had slumped against the window, neck awkwardly bent, and head only half pillowed by his arm.
Gabe glanced back at him and saw Carter watching him in the mirror, wide brown eyes serious, considering.
To break the silence, Gabe asked in a low voice, "So are you two...?"
Carter glanced at Steve–was she surprised?–"We're currently partners in treasonable offences." He couldn't see her mouth, but he could hear the smile in her voice when she added, "Are you asking if I'm single, Mr. Jones?"
"Just curious," he said, but now that he thought of it, maybe he was. "Are you single, Agent Carter?" Oh yes, she was exactly the kind of girl who got him in trouble.
But perhaps that had been too serious, because she didn't come back with something flirty, but paused before saying, "I would have to consider Steve before I answered that." Gabe nodded, surprisingly disappointed, considering how low his chances must have been in the first place. He was still working out what to say that wouldn't sound sulky, when she added, "I don't want you to think of me as old fashioned."
Gabe took a moment to consider if that was a code for wanting him to know that she wasn't turning him down because he was black, or if she meant something else, but couldn't think of a way to ask, so he said, "I like modern women." And modern men, but he didn't know if she was that modern.
"Well then, if we don't all end up incarcerated when they day is out, we'll have to talk." The smile was back in her voice, and the jolt that gave Gabe's heart reminded him of Steve saying that what Reinstein and Price done to him was wrong.
The sun was rising over the Hudson as the drove onto the George Washington, sending dark slashes of shade across the water as it broke through the skyscrapers. The sky was cloudless, and would be getting hot soon. Gabe hadn't been to New York since he was a freshman, and tried not to gawk at the changes the war had made on the city.
Then a cabbie leaned on his horn, and Steve blinked awake, and Gabe had to focus on his driving. It would make a sorry end to all this if they wound up up on the wrong side of Manhattan's traffic statistics.
Carter gave him directions to a factory a few blocks back from the river, which didn't have many markings past SE in block capitals and the US Army logo. Gabe's skin started to crawl at the second one, and he sucked in a long breath to steady himself. It was going to be a long war if he couldn't look at olive drab without wanting to leg it.
Still, he left the car parked a block back, and only just stopped himself from asking Steve if he'd stay and keep the engine running. "So where is this?"
"One of Howard Stark's machineries," Carter answered. "He said it would be safe."
"Stark?" Steve asked before Gabe could. "The playboy?"
Carter sighed. "The industrialist. He has a serious side. Somewhere." She pushed through the gate, and walked into the office with a confidence Gabe tried to imitate, no matter how far he was from feeling it. Beside him, he saw Steve deliberately squaring his shoulders, and moved closer so that his elbow brushed Steve's arm.
"Mr. Stark," Peggy was saying before the doors closed behind them. "Let me introduce you to Privates Gabe Jones and Steve Rogers."
Gabe's eyes slide from the larger than life poster of Uncle Sam to the slight man sitting behind the desk. Not gone six in the morning, and Stark had a drink in his hand. Which side of dawn was he seeing? Gabe thought about how far he could get if he just took the car and headed for Canada. He stayed.
"This the before and after picture, Peg?" Stark asked. He was looking at both men in a way that was more admiring than appraising, and managed not to make Gabe's skin crawl like when Dr. Reinstein had done it. "So it worked?"
"At a price," Gabe said tightly. "Two men are dead."
"Yeah, I was sorry to hear about that," Stark said, and he sounded like he meant it. He gestured them all into chairs, but only Carter sat.
"Where's Dr. Erskine?" Steve asked.
"Dead," Carter said just before Stark. "There was an incident in his lab. I didn't want to tell you right before a mission," she added to Steve.
Steve did sat down then, and Gabe wondered who the doctor had been and what he'd meant to Steve.
"Which means," Stark said, pressing on, "that Project: Rebirth had one success, and I'm looking at him."
Gabe had heard that before. Right before they'd started saying things about tests and tissue regeneration, in fact. He instinctively glanced at the door, and Carter reached up to take his hand, squeezing his fingers lightly.
"I'm not a lab rat," Gabe said. "I joined up to fight Hitler." Not to find out that his own military was doing things just like the ones he'd heard about in Europe.
"And I signed on thinking I was working with volunteers," Stark replied. His eyes were running over Gabe again, still assessing. "Then they stole my damn project right out from under me. Now, we need–"
"We need to find a way to make sure no one can cover this up," Carter said, "Right now, if we turn our backs and someone puts a sack over Mr. Jones's head and drags him away, no one will ever hear about him again."
Gabe checked to see if Steve was as chilled by how casually Carter was talking about his impending murder, only to find Steve's eyes fixed on the poster of Uncle Sam, red-white-and-blue top hat and all, pointing out at them. "What if," he started, then paused, biting his lip. "What if it was impossible for you to disappear?"
Later, holed up in another of Stark's properties–this one with a view of the Hudson and way too much leather upholstery–Gabe lay on his back on the floor with his hands folded under his head, and tried to work out what he was feeling.
He hadn't gotten very far with that when the key rattled in the lock, and the door opened and then closed again. Gabe didn't look up. He knew Steve's steps by now, and he knew that Carter wouldn't be far behind.
"What are you doing down there?" Steve asked, taking a seat on the edge of an over-padded armchair.
"Thinking," Gabe told him.
"About what you want to do?"
"About whether or not I can stomach what I have to do," Gabe told him. He kept his eyes on the windows, not Steve's face. He didn't want to watch his expression sink. He'd only been trying to help.
"Oh?" Steve probed cautiously.
"Two men are dead," Gabe said again, mind unable to pass that bare fact. Christian and Grant were dead, and they wanted him to dress himself in a flag and tell the world he loved his country. "And what does that mean if I take what killed them and use it."
"To do good," Steve said. "To fight the Nazis."
He meant the Germans, not the ones right here, but Gabe let him have the point. "A lot of men are going to be dead, no matter what I do," Gabe said.
Steve's uniform rustled as knelt on the floor, crouching so that he met Gabe's eyes. "If you could do anything," he asked, and oh, his grey eyes were soft and full of care, "what would you want to do?"
Kiss you, Gabe thought, but even now he couldn't find it in him to take that jump, to risk one of the few allies he still had. "I don't know," he said, but his hand rose almost of its own accord to grip Steve's shoulder. He slid it up to cup the side of his neck, and he could see the realisation spark in Steve's eyes.
"I mean what do you want to do about the war," Steve pressed, though he hadn't jumped back, or even said, "no," with so much as a look.
"Stark can put you on a flight to Vancouver within the hour," Carter said, somewhere behind and above them, "And provide Canadian identity papers and cash by the time you land." Gabe had been so focused on Steve that he hadn't heard her come in. Now he tipped his head back to see if he could tell what she thought of his and Steve's near embrace. Her poker face held.
"What will you do if I go?" he asked.
"There's a war on," Carter said simply. Steve didn't say anything, but his eyes agreed. Back at Fort Huachuca, his own 92nd Infantry, the Buffalo Soldiers, were preparing for combat in Europe, without him.
Gabe wondered if he fought this war for them, how many would fight his war on his return. He figured there was one way to find out.
"Then we fight," he said.