He’s in Chiang Mai when some crazy killer robot army tries to kill the Avengers or take over the world. He’s not sure how jacking the Sokovian capitol into the atmosphere and then dropping it like a giant rock will accomplish that, but the news media is confused too. All they’ve got are blurry camera phone video, because any reporters in Sokovia are too busy trying to get the hell out to do any kind of real reporting.
Every channel on the planet is reporting the confrontation and ensuing disaster though, so he sits with the rest of the ex-pats at the beachside bar and watches the television mounted in the corner. A running translation to Thai is playing across the bottom of the picture, but the report is pirated off some Russian satellite, and he speaks that language more easily than English these days, so he’s picking up a little more than anyone else listening.
Not that there’s a lot being explained, because aside from similarities to the robots that tore up Stark’s Tower in New York and raised hell in Hong Kong the day before, and have been reported stealing technology and materials all over the world, including freaking Wakanda, no one knows anything new beyond: city, now in sky, now fucking falling.
Gravity always wins. Or maybe that’s entropy. His science is patchy at best, out of date at worst. There was a time he loved to imagine what the future would be like, if he could be there to see it.
Someone should have told him to be careful of what he wished for.
Part of him, the part that’s been coming back since the fall of the Triskelion, instinctively wants to hurry there, to help Rogers. Of course, the fight’s over before he could get out the village, never mind out of Thailand. He was never going to go anyway. If he showed up, Steve would probably think he was there to complete Hydra’s last mission.
The last thing he wants is to fight Steve Rogers again.
He doesn’t want to fight anymore. He’s tired. He thinks he’ll always be tired. All those years in cryo and it feels like he needs to sleep enough to make up for them. There was no real rest.
He sips his bottle of local, cheaper, Leo beer and finishes his gap klaem, savoring the fiery hot flavors of the appetizers. He could sit in the cheap plastic chair and linger for another couple of hours without raising any eyebrows, taking in the news on the TV until bartender found a way to switch back to Thai wrestling, while considering where he’d go next. He was travelling under a Ukrainian passport he’d obtained in LA and his language skills were more than sufficient to pass as Ukrainian, but he was too big and too Caucasian to disappear into the seething hive of Southeast Asia unnoticed. The Ukrainian passport just marked him as a Russian undercover operative, probably FSB; all of the subcontinent was flooded with Chinese and Russian watchers. And since nothing interested spies more than other spies, the last thing he wanted was to look like one.
China was obviously out for the same reasons. He didn’t make a believable tourist anyway. Something about him set people’s unconscious alarms ringing, as if a subtle hint of blood and gunpowder still lingered on his skin.
The Winter Soldier had fled the shore of the Potomac and the man he’d broken mission protocol for with little sense of what to do beyond move. Move and then find a hide where he could be still while the hunt swept over and past him, following the expanding circle of how far he could have run and not looking back while they did. Protocol called for a return to the operations base, but that would mean punishment and another wipe.
No matter how many times he came up from the cold, there was always punishment and the wipe. Punishment was inevitable, just as recapture would be – some part of him held a sense he’d tried before – until it wasn’t. Hydra was in disarray. Lying on a tarpaper roof on a building that night, he’d listened to the endless loop of news reports on the Triskelion Disaster, the fall of the helicarriers, the scandal of SHIELD harboring Hydra within its halls all this time, and the secrets spilling from the mixed files of both that the Black Widow had dumped to the Internet.
His lips had peeled back from his teeth when he heard the Supreme Hydra had died. Captain America had survived – he’d caught the man’s hand and dragged him to the surface, left him in the mud, bleeding but breathing – but that the Captain’s nemesis was presumed dead. Drowned.
That had been good.
Maybe Hydra believed it too, enough so they wouldn’t hunt for a body when they were preoccupied like roaches in a suddenly lit room, running for the shadows.
He had a name by then, if not a memory, enough to try and hang on to instead of giving up. Once he’d walked through the Smithsonian’s Captain America exhibit, once he’d seen that he had existed before Hydra, he’d sworn he would never go back to them.
He didn’t remember being that man, that soldier, not then, but what no one understood was that the Fist of Hydra hadn’t ever believed in it. Some handlers were better than others, but none treated him as anything but a tool. He might not have remembered anything after a wipe, but he was a quick learner and what he learned was cruelty. They compelled him, but never offered any reason for loyalty.
So he left the East Coast. He avoided the Midwest, instead skirting along coastal and border cities, places where there were thriving criminal undergrounds, people living on the fringes, off the grid, staying lost among the other human flotsam and jetsam. The longer he was out of the freezer; the more skills came back to him.
Once, before Karpov disappeared with the Red Book and they no longer had the control words and had to muzzle and wipe him constantly, he had been good at operating on his own. He’d been a ghost and now he was a ghost again.
He bought three passports and sets of ID from a paperhanger in South LA. He used money he lifted from a drug dealer to pay after getting the paperhanger’s name from him. The Venezuelan’s false passport had been impressively good work, much better than his ‘Italian’ accent.
The passports weren’t good enough to get anyone into the US, but they were more than enough to use to get out. He found a job on a container ship, hard manual labor on a slow round trip back to pick up more cars, among men nearly as silent and guarded as he was. His strength made the work easy and no one found it odd he let his beard grow.
The long voyage and quiet gave him time to fit the pieces of his mind together. Each day something slotted into place. Working in the bowels of big ship, surrounded by the stench of diesel and rancid sea water and rust, mostly alone, he figured out as much as he could, enough to go forward when the ship docked and he left it behind after four months.
He’s been moving through Southeast Asia since then, growing more and more uneasy. Thailand has more tourists than Vietnam, but tourists don’t stay in one spot. It’s time to leave.
He watches the images of destruction, of buildings crushed and burning, mangled bodies and broken cars here and there, and feels a spark of pity for the Sokovians. Their country might have been a hellhole, but it was their hellhole, and now it was a giant hole in the ground.
It’s also an opportunity, he thinks, as the reporter on the ground talks about the world sending in emergency aid and refugee camps and whether the Sokovians will be able rebuild anything.
Eastern Europe wouldn’t be his first choice, but it’s probably a better choice than the west. Security isn’t as tight, despite lack of some freedoms. He won’t have to look out for cameras watching from every street corner or all the Big Brother trappings of the digital era.
It makes him snort to himself. Back in America he hadn’t been himself enough to contrast all the freedoms that didn’t exist there anymore. Now he’s sardonically amused that they think they’re the home of the free and they’re more closely monitored than most Soviet citizens ever were.
He’s read articles calling it the Dawn of the Age of the Super Human, but as far as he can tell, what it really is, is the Age of Surveillance.
Sokovians are going to flood the surrounding countries, looking for new homes, work, or just safety. It won’t be hard to either just claim to have lost his papers or assume the identity of someone dead in the disaster. There isn’t enough left of the capitol to check a background claiming it as a home. He can speak Sokovian, looks about right for Eastern Europe, even his oddities will be chalked up to trauma in the aftermath.
He wouldn’t have wished it on them, but he’s going to use the Sokovians’ bad luck.
Looking at the map displayed in a graphic behind the reporter, he picks out Romania. Something draws him to it. It’s not so close there will be a major enclave of Sokovian expatriates, but close enough he could plausibly make it.
And his Romanian is impeccable.
He swallows a soft gasp as the memory trickles in. A new one, unconnected to anything else that’s come back.
He leaves the bar as fast as he can without drawing attention and heads back to his little room.
He needs to write this down.
The Romanian comes from his grandmother. His memories of her are from Indiana, before they lost the little farm there and his father took them back to New York. He still doesn’t know what her name was, his mother’s mother, only her voice, scolding him in Romanian, the smell of powder on her wrinkled hands, her eyes unfaded despite age, the same shade as his own. She died, he thinks, there in Indiana.
Tears streak down his cheeks as he sits on the barren bed, hands resting on the knees of his worn work pants. This isn’t something Hydra put in his head. His mother didn't want anyone knowing she was a Romanian Jew, his father didn't want anyone speaking that language in the house, because they were Americans and didn't need the trouble that would come with being different. It isn’t anything Steve Rogers ever knew about him. This is his.
He sets out the next day, shedding his Ukrainian identity along the way, burning the other two passports in a bathtub in a bombed out ruin ten miles west of where the borders of Croatia, Romania, Latveria and Sokovia jigsaw against each other.
He joins a long line of Sokovians trudging along the road to the Romanian checkpoint. Some of them drag carts with their salvaged belongings. Many of them have nothing, even less than his backpack.
He tells the guards at the border his name is Cosmin, that he lost home and job in the disaster, that he has cousins in Reșița, in the west, and the guards allow him through, with a comment on his old-fashioned accent.
"I sound like my grandmother," he replies. "I learned from her."
They wish him luck.
He goes to Bucharest, not Reșița, and finds another off the grid job, manual labor, but it pays for a cheap room, enough food, fresh fruit and vegetables from the market, even some junk food that tastes like crap and sits on his shelves untouched. He keeps his notebooks to hand and his go-bag hidden underneath some floorboards. It's peaceful. He has a routine, even though he knows routine will get him caught eventually.
It's dangerous to stay as long as he does in Bucharest, but he's so tired. He thinks he will always be tired, always be waiting for some stranger to say the control words and unmake him again.
It's why he stays far from Steve Rogers.
Not the weight of what he's already done, but the knowledge of what he may be yet made to do.
It doesn't matter that he doesn't want to fight or kill anyone. It always ends in a fight and he always loses.
Winter always wins.